How to explain a big U.S. Senate race in sparsely populated South Dakota, where there are almost as many candidates running as residents voting?
Maybe as a circus.
In the first ring! A popular Republican former governor who is anti-abortion and who balanced the state budget eight years in a row is called a “liberal” by his four Tea Party Republican opponents.
In the second ring! A first-time candidate and medical doctor who says she basically lived in a van down by the river because she was broke equates food stamp recipients with wild animals.
And in the third ring! South Dakota’s attorney general is investigating candidates for possible campaign petition violations.
- In AG Marty Jackley’s sights is Dr. Annette Bosworth, who one prominent blogger and others have accused of signing under oath that she personally circulated her petitions. However, evidence suggests she and her husband were out of the country on dates she says she circulated them. (No one is sure what the exact violation may be.) She’s also relied on video memes declaring that students need more education about guns and the Bible.
- Five Republicans are running for the nomination as well as three independents, including former Republican U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, whom Johnson defeated in 1996.
- The Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland, is a two-time statewide loser, having lost U.S. House runs in 1996 and 2002.
- That puts nine candidates on the ballot, the most in 80 years for a U.S. Senate race in South Dakota.
One event in particular in April sealed the circus analogy.
The race’s self-declared “most conservative” Republican candidate, state Rep. Stace Nelson, held a free-for-all joint news conference in Sioux Falls with the former Sen. Tom Daschle aide and the unabashedly liberal Democrat Weiland, alleging Gov. Rounds was corrupt as a governor and engaged in “crony capitalism.” There was lots of rhetoric, little evidence, but several off-topic questions from non-press members.
Perhaps longtime Sioux Falls radio talk show host and former mayor Rick Knobe sums up the race best.
“This is NOT a typical (South Dakota) race,” Knobe said. “The best known front-runner is being challenged within his own party for ‘not being conservative enough.’ It has drawn a unique blend of folks — and a partridge in a pear tree,” Knobe quips.
So who are these people? A quick rundown:
- Former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds, the odds-on favorite, 59, an insurance executive from Pierre.
- State Senator and Senate Majority Leader Larry Rhoden, 54, a rancher from Union Center.
- Dr. Annette Bosworth, 42, a medical doctor and first-time candidate, from Sioux Falls.
- State Representative Stace Nelson, 47, a retired Marine and NCIS investigator from Fulton.
- Jason Ravnsborg, 38, a lawyer and major in the U.S. Army Reserve, from Yankton.
- Rick Weiland, 55, former Daschle aide and former chief executive officer of the International Code Council, from Madison.
- Former Republican U.S. Senator Larry Nelson, 71, a lawyer and lecturer, from Humboldt.
- Former Republican state representative and senator Gordon Howie, 64, president of Citizens for Liberty, a Tea Party-related group, from Rapid City.
- Clayton Walker, 33, a former Democratic state legislative candidate and business consultant, from Black Hawk. He lost a nominating petition challenge this week and won’t make it on the ballot.
Also in play is the end of the Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson machines that made for the almost miraculous election and re-election of the two Democrats to the U.S. Senate for nearly three decades. They are kaput.