Democrats were put on the defensive when South Dakota three term Senator Tim Johnson announced he was retiring in 2014. Johnson had an appeal to the state culturally and politically that no Democratic successor can likely match. Republicans quickly jumped on the news and recruited former Governor Mike Rounds to run for the open seat. Democrats had to settle for liberal Tom Daschle aid and Sioux Falls businessman Rick Weiland. Democrats had been hoping Brendan Johnson, Tim Johnson’s son, would run for the seat. Most Democratic strategists admit Weiland is to liberal for the state on environmental and energy issues.
Much as Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia is learning being an establishment blessed candidate is a mixed blessing. Outside conservative groups have promised to give Rounds a primary challenge but have yet to settle on a satisfactory candidate. Announced state senator Larry Rhoden has the fiscal credibility to court conservative support but his campaign skills are a question mark. Unfortunately for Rounds, while he is well-known and liked in the state his fundraising reports have been lagging suggesting outside help for an anti-establishment candidate could have an outsized impact. But that is a hypothetical. Rounds has vastly more money than Weiland and much higher name recognition to start the race.
It should be added that Johnson’s health has long been a concern for Democrats in the state. In 2004 Johnson was treated for Prostate Cancer in its early stages. In 2006 however was the major health scare. While conducting an interview in DC Johnson suffered a massive stroke causing by bleeding in the brain. Republicans were hesitant to put up a candidate in 2008 even when it was clear Johnson was still far from recovered. He won easily and since this time much has changed as will be evidenced below.
Historically, South Dakota has been Republican at the Presidential level and a mixed bag in other federal races. The state has had a total of 25 US Senators (some were placeholders) and of those only seven have been Democrats. Admittedly, since 1960 the numbers have been closer with five Senators being Republican and four Democratic. However, the state is notable for sending outspoken Democratic liberals such as George McGovern to the Senate for almost two decades. More recently however the state’s delegation at the Congressional level has flipped. In 2004 former Congressman John Thune upset three term Senator Tom Daschle. Thune had almost beat Johnson in 2002 (more on this later). The same year Thune beat Daschle, Democrat Herseth Sandlin won the state’s at-large Congressional seat (Thune’s old seat). Sandlin was defeated in the GOP wave of 2010 by Kristie Noem making Johnson the lone Democrat in the state’s federal delegation.
The state is far more uniform Republican at the state level. Currently, Democrats are a distinct minority in the state legislature. They hold a mere 23 of 94 state house seats and 13 of 46 state senate seats. Democrats have also not won the Governor’s mansion since 1979, having lost the last 9 gubernatorial contests. Out of the state’s 32 Governors, 26 have been Republican, 5 Democratic and 1 a Populist near the end of the 20th century. In recent years Democratic candidates have struggled to even hit 40% of the statewide vote for Governor. This used to not be the case. Democrats were regularly competitive in statewide elections until the 90’s when they sharply dropped off. This drop-off can be linked to the changing political leanings of the two most populous counties in the state, Pennington and Minnehaha County. Pennington County is where Rapid Falls is situated and Minnehaha houses Sioux Falls.
Rapid City has long harbored strong Republican tendencies fueled historically by a strong linkage between Midwestern Republicanism and business. Sioux Falls can claim no such linkage to the GOP. The city went for McGovern all three times he ran and gave Daschle its support, albeit narrowly, in 2004 when he lost. However, the city has a much stronger tendency to support Republicans running for state offices. This trend seems to have finally translated to supporting Republicans at the federal level. Noem’s victory in 2010 can largely be attributed to her margins in the city.
Now onto the the race today. Looking at Rounds victories in the state as well as Thune’s loss against Johnson in 2002 and victory over Daschle in 2004 is instructive in understanding the state’s modern leanings. It also helps explain why Johnson would opt for retirement than run for reelection. In 2002 Rounds won election with over 56%. Following past GOP paths to victory, Rounds emphatically won both Pennington County (60%) and Minnehaha County (55%) by double-digit margins. In fact, the Democratic candidate won a mere 11 counties in the entire state. In his reelection in 2006, Rounds built on 2002 to steal several Northern counties. Ironically, he won the statewide vote with 61% but had almost identical winning margins in Pennington and Minnehaha Counties.
The 2002 race featured then freshman Senator Tim Johnson against Congressman John Thune. The race was neck and neck with Johnson winning by a mere .15% or 524 votes out of over 300,000 cast. Thune crushed Johnson in Pennington County with over 60% of the vote while Johnson carried Minnehaha County by four points. The state’s historical divided was also showcased in the race. Johnson won a majority of counties in the East of the state while Thune carried a majority of the state’s western counties.
When Thune ran again in 2004 against Daschle the same map from 2002 largely reappeared. The key differences were that turnout increased in both Pennington and Minnehaha Counties and that Thune ran stronger in the state’s eastern regions. Thune also carried several central counties in the state he had lost in 2002. In Minnehaha County Thune ran two points stronger than he did in 2002 and in Pennington County he fell a point but was helped by increased turnout in Minnehaha County. His 1% winning margin was a combination of unexpected strength in the center of the state and strength in the East.
If Weiland were to win it would have to be called an upset. The state has trended towards lockstep Republicanism in the last several years. Thune’s victory in 2004, Noem’s victory in 2010 and GOP control of the Governor’s mansion and super-majority in the legislature have made any Democrat’s attempt at winning statewide an uphill race. Still, Weiland can claim some assets. He was a former aide to Daschle, who is still fairly well liked in the state. Also, his business credentials might allow him to connect to GOP voters in and around Rapid City.
Rounds has the same credibility with the business community however. Moreover, his moderate tenure as Governor focusing on business and economic development as opposed to divisive cultural issues give him strong appeal in Minnehaha County. Weiland’s biggest problem may be that his partisan affiliation is the same as a liberal Democratic President’s. While no Democratic Presidential candidate has won the state since 1964 the state has been remarkably consistent in its voting habits since 2000 when Bush carried it with 60% of the vote. Bush carried it by the same margin in 2004 while McCain saw his margin drop to 54%. Romney won the state with 57%. The President’s approval in the state is a dismal 40% or below and his stance on the Keystone Pipeline is sure to filter down to hurt Weiland as it is opposed to the business community’s views.
None of this is to say that Weiland cannot win. Heidi Heitikamp’s surprise win in 2010 showed the right candidate can win running on the right issue set. However, her opponent was an unpopular Congressmen and the open Congressional seat stayed in Republican hands. Furthermore, Heitikamp ran 20 points ahead of the President in the state. For Weiland to win he would have to overcome his liberal baggage and run more than 20 points ahead of the President’s approval in the state. It can be done I just would not count on it.
Update: This race could change if Rounds finds himself in trouble due to Rhoden’s or another Republican’s primary challenge. However, if this occurs it is likely business support would pick up for Rounds and his campaign would drain its treasury to sink his opponent. Even if all this occurred, Weiland would still be the underdog regardless of the GOP nominee.