What did former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds know and when did he know it about the EB-5 green card for foreign investment scandal that dogged him the past year in the South Dakota U.S. Senate race?
It didn’t and doesn’t matter.
Rounds handily defeated three opponents Tuesday night. Rounds, the Republican, just edged over 50 percent, while Democrat Rick Weiland polled just under 30 percent, former U.S. Senator and independent Larry Pressler polled 17 percent and tea party independent Gordon Howie scored 3 percent.
Recent polling showed that voters’ concern over Rounds’ involvement in the EB-5 matter roughly broke into thirds—a third of South Dakotans said it influenced their vote, a third said it didn’t and a third were undecided.
And who were the third that said it influenced their vote? Largely Democrats who weren’t going to vote for Rounds anyway.
Rounds’ win was one of the seven Senate Republican pickups election night, giving the Republicans a majority in the Senate. The shift in power also likely means that South Dakota’s now senior senator, John Thune, moves up to chair the Senate Commerce Committee. Thune already is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Rounds’ central campaign theme was bringing “South Dakota common sense” to Washington, D.C. How that differs from “North Dakota common sense” or even “New York common sense” is yet to be seen.
However, the meme continued election night during his victory speech at the state Republican Party soirée at The District nightclub in Sioux Falls.
“The people of South Dakota sent a message of home, of true belief, of change in Washington, D.C.,” Rounds said. “Dysfunction is not allowed. We will fix it with a dose of South Dakota common sense.”
Another theme was Rounds saying he lost sleep at night about whether his dad—whom he called “Grandpa Don” in TV ads—would continue to get the healthcare he needs because of what Rounds claims will be reduced funding of Medicare because of the Affordable Care Act. Mike probably doesn’t need to worry. The elder Rounds was a longtime lobbyist for the petroleum industry in South Dakota.
“We want to repeal and replace Obamacare section by section,” Rounds said at his election night speech. “You sent a message that the bureaucracy is out of control in Washington, D.C.”
And to further burnish his conservative credential, Rounds added, “We want government out of the backyards and farms of South Dakota.”
Rounds said during the campaign that he would work to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and the EPA.
Rounds’ victory was the tip of the spear for South Dakota Republicans. In an already vermilion state, Republicans turned it completely blood red.
Rounds and GOP Rep. Kristi Noem each won re-election by over 30 points. Republicans swept all statewide offices such as attorney general and secretary of state. And state Republicans, which already had supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, picked up a net gain of four seats of the 105 members. Republicans won 58 of 60 contested legislative races.
It’s been over 50 years since the Republicans—which have not lost a governor’s race since 1974—have had such complete control of state and federal government in the Mount Rushmore State.
Just 10 years ago—2014 was the 10th anniversary of Thune’s upset of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle—South Dakota Democrats briefly held all three federal offices and controlled the state Public Utilities Commission, which had been a Democratic stronghold over the years and was treated as the equivalent of a consumer protection agency. Now, even the PUC’s three members are Republicans.
Things are so bad for state Democrats that with Thune up for re-election in 2016, there’s not a Democratic bench of viable candidates to challenge him. That is unless former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin – who still remains popular despite her defeat in 2010 to tea party darling Noem – wants to leave a cushy private-sector job and challenge Thune. Sandlin took a powder on the 2014 race when Weiland, Daschle’s former state director, got in the race. In fact, in 2010, Thune ran unopposed for re-election to the Senate.
Craig Lawrence, the state Republican chair, said that had Sandlin gotten involved in the 2014 Senate race, it would have created a whole different—and more difficult—dynamic for the state GOP. Though the EB-5 scandal wasn’t enough to dent Rounds, a Sandlin run would have given Rounds a much more centrist—and better known and liked opponent—than the guitar-playing, town-traveling and stem-winding Weiland.
Even if Sandlin had lost to Rounds—and there’s no guarantee she would have, with her track record of attracting Republican and independent voters – she likely wouldn’t have lost by 20 points. She also would have been a fundraising magnet for down-ballot Democrats, who desperately needed the cash and her cache to be competitive.
To Rounds’ right, Howie, the former Republican legislator and South Dakota tea party independent, ended up doing no better in his home tea party hotbed of Pennington County (think Rapid City and a chunk of the Black Hills) than he did generally statewide. Once thought to be the wild card that might drain enough right-wing votes from Rounds to allow Pressler or Weiland to sneak in, his campaign ultimately had no impact on the results.
Meanwhile, the now-independent Pressler wheeled his old “Johnny Popper” John Deere tractor out of the barn and drove it in parades just like he did when he was the state’s Republican senator from 1979 to 1997. Pressler ran a positive, issues-based campaign, sticking to what he would and wouldn’t do if he went back to Washington.
Endorsed by the Centrist Project, which went 1-5 in endorsements this fall, the 72-year-old Pressler has said he will teach and talk—but not be starting a new party or political movement. So, as noble as Pressler’s underfunded, family-run campaign was, in the end, it was just a one-off attempt to go back to D.C.
However, Pressler does get the quote of the campaign about Rounds and the EB-5 mess. He said that once Rounds goes to Washington and the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post start looking into the scandal, “We’ll have a wounded senator.”
But as of today, Rounds, like Republicans in South Dakota and across the nation, is looking anything but wounded.