Indie Shocker in South Dakota: GOP Shot at Senate Seat in Trouble

He has no outside money, virtually no staff, and, until a few weeks ago, he had no chance.

But thanks to political scandal the likes of which South Dakota has never seen, former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, independent candidate for his old seat, has surged to within a few points of the Republican frontrunner, former Gov. Mike Rounds.

When he announced his run two years ago, the popular former governor was considered unbeatable by most South Dakota political insiders.

But a scandal over his administration’s handling of the EB-5 visa foreign investment program has resulted in a drop in points by seemingly a thousand allegations.

Meanwhile, Rounds’ Democratic challenger, former Sen. Tom Daschle acolyte Rick Weiland, has also seen his support eroded by Pressler.

Recent polling by SurveyUSA shows a statistical dead heat between the well-funded but wounded Rounds at 35 percent and Pressler at 32 percent. Meanwhile, Weiland, who’s visited all 317 towns in South Dakota at least once and has seen third-party support from Every Voice Action, MayDay PAC and, finally, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, still trails Rounds—or Pressler—by a few points to over 10 points, depending on the polling you believe.

Even former Republican, current tea partier and independent Gordon Howie’s 3 to 5 percent takes precious conservative Republican support away from Rounds.

Pressler’s surge has been in the making for the past two months, with polling from SurveyUSA and Nielson Brothers Polling, a South Dakota firm, showing support shifting from both Rounds and Weiland to Pressler. Pressler polls equally well among Democrats, Republicans and independents and also does well in the 50-64 age group.

For Rounds, he has watched his once high-teens lead and over 50 percent majority evaporate to a lead by the margin of error and a 35 percent plurality while details about his role in the EB-5 scandal dribble out on nearly a daily basis.

The South Dakota news media, not known for its aggressive reporting, has been uncharacteristically relentless on the EB-5 story since the alleged suicide of Rounds’ former secretary of Tourism and Economic Development, Richard Benda. Benda was once thought to be the major player in the scandal, which also resulted in the closing of the Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen not long after it opened. Now Benda is considered only one of a variety of Rounds associates or Republican insiders embroiled in the mess.

What started as an unusual death last October—Benda used a stick to pull the trigger and fire his shotgun into his stomach—has exploded. Benda was accused of double-billed travel and accused that he used or had his new employer--NBP--use state money to give him a “golden parachute” from state government in trade for favors. There have been several state investigations of low to medium intensity into the matter—and a possible federal investigation by U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, current Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson’s son, remains as an “October surprise.”

As the months passed from last fall, the EB-5 scandal turned into a broader inquiry of insider dealing that privatized South Dakota’s EB-5 program under suspicious circumstances. It also may have cost the state over a hundred million dollars in lost fees from the green cards-for-investments program.

Rounds’ answers to questions posed by the media and a legislative committee investigating the matter have been unsatisfactory and sometimes even wrong, causing him to retract statements in the face of new evidence.

South Dakota Democrats have tried to make EB-5 their “silver bullet” in both the U.S. Senate and governor races. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Susan Wismer, a state representative and an accountant who serves on the committee investigating the EB-5 matter, has done most of the heavy political and legislative lifting in keeping attention on EB-5.

Her nitty-gritty efforts have not helped her own run against incumbent Republican Dennis Daugaard, who leads her by 28 points in recent polling. Dem Senate candidate Weiland has spoken more generally about Rounds and the EB-5 scandal, including spots erroneously calling EB-5 “citizenship for auction.”

But it has been Wismer, who sometimes seems to be a reluctant candidate, who largely has kept the issue in the public eye, as well as the state Democratic Party.

The beneficiary of these efforts, however, so far, has been Pressler.

The once boyish-looking, now grandfatherly appearing Pressler has added his voice to the “pile on Mike re EB-5” chorus but largely has avoided specifics.

His advertising shows him with both Presidents Clinton and Reagan; he pledges to serve only one term and he notes his 18 years of Senate and four years of House seniority as important in his ability to serve South Dakota. He’s also said he’ll caucus with whichever party gives South Dakota—and presumably, him—the best deal.