Former GOP Senator turned Independent candidate Larry Pressler.
Former GOP Senator turned Independent candidate Larry Pressler.

The South Dakota Senate race has long been assumed to be in the GOP’s column.  But is it?  Recent polling, a growing scandal and the DSCC’s decision to spend $1 million on the race has political analysts wondering.  But first, let’s give some background on the race and the state.  South Dak0ta has not voted for a Democratic President since 1964 (LBJ).  But it has a rich history of sending moderate Democrats to Congress.  In fact, the state has had tremendous clout in DC due to long serving Democratic lawmakers.  This culminated with its senior Senator becoming Senate Majority Leader from 2001-2003.  However, the state, like many other GOP supporting states, started to shed its Democratic leanings at the federal level.  In 2004, then Minority Leader Tom Daschle was defeated by 1% by John Thune as Bush easily carried the state.  In 2010, the state sent out moderate Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin (D) for GOPer Kristi Noem.

This cycle, Democrat Tim Johnson announced he would not seek another term.  Republicans immediately sensed an opportunity and recruited former GOP Governor Mike Rounds (the party has always dominated the state level).  Democratic recruiting efforts are famous for their numerous failures.  They first tried to recruit former Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin to run.  She declined.  The party then tried to get Johnson’s son to run, he declined.  After more efforts the party settled on former Daschle aid, Rick Weiland, viewed by many as far to liberal for the state.  He opposes Keystone while a vast majority of the state supported it.

Rounds and Weiland cruised through their primaries but met a surprise when former GOP Senator Larry Presser (defeated by Johnson in 92) announced he would run as an Independent.  Conservative activist Gordon Howie also announced he was running as an Independent.  Though scant polling has been done on the race many analysts put it safely in the GOP column.  Rounds has run a lackluster campaign but Weiland’s opposition to Keystone and Pressler’s campaign never posed much of a threat.  Until perhaps now.  A recent Survey USA poll found Rounds at only 35% compared to 28% for Weiland and 32% for Pressler.  By comparison a smaller YouGov survey found Rounds ahead 42% to 27% against Weiland with a mere 12% supporting Pressler.

What might explain the change?  Rounds has been caught up in what is termed the EB 5 scandal.  Specifically, allegations have been leveled against Rounds that he improperly lobbied investors on the program and illegally gave EB 5 visas to illegal immigrants.  Rounds has of course denied the charges.  But the scandal has shown no signs of abating and this might have allowed Pressler to start to gain.  Meanwhile, Weiland has been unable to get more than 30% or so support.

Recently, sensing a shift, the DSCC said they would spend $1 million on the race ostensibly to shore up Weiland.  But if Presssler won, arguably a far more moderate candidate who would likely spend no more than a term or two in office, the party would not shed a tear.  In response, the NRSC said it would spend $1 million in response.  The Rounds camp has far more cash, $1.1 million, than either the Weiland or Pressler campaigns but would struggle to match the DSCC’s spending.  Whether the NRSC’s buy represents worry about the race or merely aid to shore up a likely seat remains to be seen.

Despite Round’s weakness in recent polls he can take heart from three facts.  First, the lack of polling makes it hard to tell whether the Survey USA results were a mere blip or a sign of something more serious.  Second, the NRSC is coming in to aid his campaign with cash and advice.  Lastly, Obama’s unpopularity in the state seems to be giving Weiland a ceiling.  If Rounds can keep Pressler from splitting his base he should be able to still win with 40% or less.  However, the Survey USA poll showed this is no sure thing.

In the three-way race Rounds is only winning 55% of the GOP vote.  Pressler wins Independents and is splitting the Democratic and Republican vote keeping Rounds and Weiland from running away with the race.  Crosstabs of the survey were not released making the results even more surprising.

Still, the fact the GOP feels it needs to spend on the race is a sign the race is moving.  The President is below 40% in the state making it hard to see Weiland winning the race.  However, if Rounds does not fight off scandal allegations and Weiland tops 40% of the vote Pressler and Rounds could split the GOP vote enough for him to slip through.  Unlikely though.  More likely Pressler or Rounds make it through with the skin of their teeth.  If Pressler wins, the question will be which party he caucuses with.  So far, unlike in Kansas with Greg Orman, the GOP has not gone after him directly.  Expect that to soon change with revelations Pressler’s primary residence is in DC even as he votes in South Dakotan elections.

Addendum: Roll Call and the Washington Post have recently changed the race from Republican Favored to Leaning Republican after the Survey USA poll and a Harper survey and signs the Rounds camp is struggling.  However, allegations of scandal are now impacting Pressler.  Considering Pressler is a refuge for disgruntled Democrats and Republicans, if these voters flee him the question is where they will go?

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