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.
Coupled with the popular Rounds, who won statewide election twice by nearly 2-to-1 margins over his Democratic gubernatorial opponents in 2002 and 2006, and cheap local media rates, the Republicans have an opportunity to gain Johnson’s seat.
And then there’s Weiland, the last vestige of former Senate majority leader Daschle’s machine.
Weiland has made a point of visiting all 300+ towns in the state. However, he’s been rebuffed by the national Democratic Party for funding. This, despite the fact the seat he’s running for has been in Democratic hands for nearly 20 years.
Rounds’ real problems, however, might come from the independents—Pressler on the left and Howie on the right—and from his own past administration.
“People know Pressler,” says Cory Allen Heidelberger, a Democratic blogger for the liberal Madville Times. “He gives nostalgaists and anti-Rounds Republicans a safe harbor in the general.”
Other state pundits think Pressler, who endorsed President Obama, also hurts Weiland as much as he hurts Rounds. A recent poll by SurveyUSA supports that notion.
Howie, who ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 but lost to current Gov. Dennis Daugaard, is a well-known state Tea Party leader. He says he’ll withdraw from the election in November if his friend and fellow Tea Partier Nelson wins the Republican nomination in June.
But Rounds’ biggest problem of all might be the aftermath of one of his key initiatives as governor: the bankrupt Northern Beef plant in Aberdeen. His administration used foreign investors to fund the failed multimillion dollar project–and other, successful agricultural projects–through the use of EB-5 visas.
Throw in the fact that Rounds’ former secretary of tourism, Richard Benda, the person who was responsible for much of the EB-5 program, was found dead under suspicious circumstances last fall. Benda also double billed the state for travel and apparently set himself up a half million dollar “golden parachute” with EB-5 monies when Daugaard—Rounds’ lieutenant governor– took over from Rounds in January 2011.
The EB-5 scandal—sordid by South Dakota standards—has become a fourth ring in the circus.
Nelson has gotten personal with his attacks of Rounds over the failure of the beef plant and Chinese investors (as he calls them, “Communist Red Chinese”) shelling out a $500,000 investment for the possibility of a green card.
The state legislature conducted a perfunctory investigation of the EB-5 scandal this winter and Rounds has avoided most of the stench. Still, Nelson and Weiland are happy to remind voters about the controversy.
The EB-5 scandal notwithstanding, the race that might decide the direction of the U.S. Senate is Rounds’ to lose, according to recent polling.
A push-button poll conducted by SurveyUSA and released May 13 shows Rounds with a comfortable lead in the five-way Republican primary, with a 45 to 16 percent lead over Nelson. They are followed by Bosworth at 11 percent, Rhoden at 9 percent, Ravnsborg at 4 percent and 15 percent undecided. The poll has a 4.5 margin of error.
The same poll also shows Rounds with a 44 to 30 percent advantage over Weiland in the fall, with Pressler polling 17 percent, Howie 3 percent, Walker 2 percent and 5 percent undecided.
Part One of the strange, Fellini-esque South Dakota electoral circus ends June 3, when South Dakota’s Republican voters will cull the elephant act from five to one, leaving “only” four total candidates. Though the number of candidates will decrease, the South Dakota Senate circus moves inexorably onward to November, perhaps with only one less ring under the tent.