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

Pressler, who has run a largely issues- and solutions-based campaign, has become the South Dakota Senate race’s “none of the above.”

Which is ironic.

In 2002, Rounds, then the state Senate majority leader, was “none of the above” in the Republican primary for governor.

In that race, former, then current attorney general—now state circuit court judge--Mark Barnett and former lieutenant governor and venture capitalist Steve Kirby were both much better funded and better known than Rounds. The two of them also engaged in one of the most vitriolic primaries in South Dakota history, with nasty ads about Kirby ‘s investments keeping burn victims from needed skin grafts and Kirby throwing back hard accusations of his own against fellow Republican Barnett.

It is important to note that South Dakota is a large landmass with fewer than a million people. It is Midwestern small town “nice” writ large—and it worked for Rounds.

Meanwhile, the insurance executive—given the sobriquet “Smilin’ Mike” in his state senate days-- literally smiled his way to victory, taking a sunny, Reaganesque approach to his campaigning and TV ads.

He won the three-way primary then went on to an easy victory and two terms as South Dakota’s chief executive.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

Rounds emerged from the five-person race—one of the craziest in South Dakota history—with only 55 percent against two state legislators and two political novices. But the EB-5 scandal dogged him, particularly because of Rep. Stace Nelson, a 6-7 ex-Marine and NCIS investigator who wasn’t afraid to tell Rounds to his face at their few debates and joint appearances that he thought Rounds was a “crony capitalist” who gave state contracts to his friends. Nelson also liked to toss around the notion that Rounds was tainted by “Communist Red Chinese” money that came into the state via the EB-5 program.

Pressler largely stayed above the fray while the Republicans beat up on Rounds and Weiland toured all over the state, sometimes stopping to even play his guitar.

Now Pressler, who has been taking a page from the Rounds and Reagan books, finds himself under attack from Rounds, Weiland and outside groups.

Republican operatives recently circulated a Politico story to South Dakota reporters that said Pressler and his wife and chief campaigner, Harriet, took a tax deduction on their Washington, D.C. home and thus, claimed Pressler was “a D.C. resident.”

In Daschle’s defeat by John Thune in 2004, the Republicans ran a similar TV ad to devastating effect against Daschle, who was then the U.S. Senate majority leader.

The Democrats have tried to remind voters that at the end of his career in 1996, Pressler had taken a hard turn to the right and wanted to “kill Big Bird” and defund public broadcasting. Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s dislike of Weiland as a candidate, the DSCC is now cutting loose with close to a million dollars in advertising on the Democrat’s behalf.

That Pressler has gotten this far on so little is remarkable. Whether he can continue his surge, keep his support while he has a target on him, all the while not having an Election Day GOTV program of consequence is yet to be seen.

But this hasn’t been a typical election cycle in South Dakota this year either. It’s been one filled with expecting the unexpected from candidates. A Republican-turned-Obama supporter-turned independent with nothing more than two nickels and a TicTac to rub together in his pocket winning a seat he lost 18 years ago isn’t any more far-fetched than what’s already transpired in the Mount Rushmore State.