Heated Fight

South Dakota's Bizarre Four-Way (Senate Election, That Is)

Meet the GOP shoo-in stumbling after a scandal, the independent stumping at cowboy poetry readings, the Democrat gaining ground, and the social conservative with diehard fans.

10.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Control of the U.S. Senate could come down to a septuagenarian once considered a political has-been in a state long considered a political afterthought.

Yes, the latest battlefield in the fight over whether Democrats can retain control of the U.S. Senate has somehow become South Dakota, where no Democratic presidential candidate has won since 1964. Making things even more interesting, the race is a four-way battle: Former Republican governor Mike Rounds, once considered an overwhelming favorite, has sunk in the polls, and Larry Pressler, a former three-term Republican senator running as an independent, is nipping at his heels. But Democrat Rick Weiland is also just behind Rounds, and another independent, former state senator Gordon Howie, is attracting significant support.

The Republican Party once looked all but certain to pick up outgoing Democrat Tim Johnson’s Senate seat. Rounds was a well-liked ex-governor and Weiland, a longtime aide to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, was long dismissed by Daschle’s successor, Harry Reid. Rounds had a significant money advantage, and even with Pressler running was considered an overwhelming favorite. But in recent weeks Rounds has been hammered over an immigration fraud scandal during his administration, and outside groups are flooding money into the state, which has only two major media markets, both inexpensive. “Not even Taco John’s is able to buy a TV spot right now because the establishment candidates have bought up all the airtime,” Howie told The Daily Beast.

The “establishment candidate” who hasn’t bought up any airtime is Pressler. The former senator told The Daily Beast that he has raised less than $200,000 and has just one full-time employee. Instead of running ads and building a modern campaign apparatus, Pressler said he has getting up at 4:30 a.m. to do retail politics and is planning to go to a cowboy poetry reading on Wednesday. The genre, he explained, is popular in the western half of state, noting: “It may sound very strange, but the poetry reading will be one of my major events” of the campaign. Indeed, Pressler’s passion for cowboy poetry is so strong that if elected, he would be interested in “getting one of our South Dakota poets as poet laureate of the United States,” he said.

The former Republican senator, who voted for Obama twice but donated money to Mitt Romney, has long been cagey about which party he would caucus with in Washington. He did tell The Daily Beast that he would look for a “high-quality person who is centrist, not a liberal, and not a conservative” as a potential Supreme Court nominee. He pointed to two examples already on the court: “I think Anthony Kennedy is close to that, and I have a feeling Stephen Breyer is close to that.” In particular, he praised the deregulatory work that Justice Breyer, who taught Pressler at Harvard Law, did in the Carter administration.

But the candidate also made sure to note that he is not a “blind supporter of Barack Obama,” quipping that just “because someone voted for Richard Nixon doesn’t mean that they’ve caused Watergate.” The United States, Pressler suggested, needs “a whole new foreign policy”: “The military-industrial complex has such a grip on society that Obama has been overtaken by it.” The former senator criticized sending arms to the Syrian rebels and said that with “the exception of fairly brief airstrikes,” the United States should stay out of further military involvement in the Middle East.

Less than a month before Election Day, Pressler seems to be feeling some trepidation about his movement in the polls. He told The Daily Beast that while he thinks his numbers “are phenomenal” despite “such a low budget,” he’s entering “a very dangerous zone” as he becomes a target for negative ads.

Republicans, on the other hand, appear sanguine about their prospects.

Dick Wadhams, a strategist for the South Dakota Republican Party, dismissed the impact of the attacks against Rounds. While he noted that Pressler has been rising in the polls, he said, “It’s only because voters who don’t know where Larry Pressler stands on the issues have moved towards him.” Weiland’s support has been stagnant, Wadhams said, adding that once voters discover that Pressler “has moved way far to the left,” his support will recede, too.

In the meantime, Rounds will continue to hammer home a conservative message in the Republican-leaning state and attack Pressler and Weiland together “as two peas in a pod” who support President Obama and Obamacare. While Rounds has pledged throughout his political career not to run negative ads, he is now running “contrast ads” demonstrating the differences between his opinions on Obamacare and the Keystone XL pipeline and those of his opponents.

While Wadhams went after Pressler and Weiland, he dismissed Howie, the independent running to Rounds’s right, as not a significant factor. The Republican strategist said Howie would likely hover around 3 percent to 4 percent of the vote; his voters are diehards “who would be for him regardless,” Wadhams said.

Needless to say, Howie disagrees with that characterization. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he described Rounds as “a sinking ship” and portrayed himself as a lifeboat for South Dakota voters who want to elect a conservative. Analyzing the ebb and flow of the race, Howie said Weiland has positive momentum but Rounds is collapsing. The social conservative, whose bumper stickers read “I’m with God, Guns and Gordon,” compared Rounds to John McCain and Mitt Romney, calling the former South Dakota governor “a bad candidate who does not represent conservative values and loses conservative traditional values voters.” Howie also took a direct shot at Rounds’s claim to Bloomberg Politics that South Dakota is “a purple state.” South Dakota is a conservative state, Howie said, “We just have purple leadership.”

Howie, who said he would caucus with the Republicans and “stand beside Ted Cruz” if elected, is not a typical social conservative. Although he is passionately pro-life, he has expressed openness to civil unions in the past. Speaking to The Daily Beast, he tried to explain that position: “I don’t want to parse words, but strictly speaking civil unions may not be something I would support in the strict sense of that term. But what I was trying to communicate is I support the rights of people to live in the lifestyle that is different than I believe is inappropriate, You don’t start stripping rights away from people because they live in a different lifestyle.” Howie added that he wouldn’t support anything that would compromise his principles or “the institution of marriage.”

The candidate Howie thinks has momentum, Rick Weiland, is no typical Democrat, either. His campaign has run a 3-minute ad featuring the candidate singing a reworked cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel,” with lyrics focusing on his support for campaign finance reform and student loans. Daschle, who has been Weiland’s biggest backer, said he thinks the race is “looking better and better” for the Democratic candidate. The former Senate majority leader noted that “running in an off year in a red state for a Democrat is always the preferred option” and that the underfunded Democrat is running in one of the few states “where it’s still small enough to stay retail politically.”

The big issue for Weiland has always been resources, but now that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is investing in the campaign, that has become less of an issue. As one Democratic strategist told The Daily Beast, “For a very small investment, you could saturate TV” in South Dakota. As a result, the $1 million the DSCC is throwing in represents “an inexpensive gamble,” the source said. The ad buy focuses entirely on attacking Rounds over his immigration fraud scandal and as a result provides a boost to Pressler in addition to Weiland.

Weiland may look like an underdog across much of the state, but he has a big advantage in one area: Indian Country. About 10 percent of South Dakotans are Native Americans, and many live on desperately poor reservations like Pine Ridge and Rosebud and overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

Despite the off-year election, it’s expected that Native American turnout will rise significantly. Democratic state Rep. Kevin Killer, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, told The Daily Beast that new satellite voting sites placed throughout Indian Country as a result of a lawsuit under the Help America Vote Act will boost turnout significantly. This means that for the first time, most reservations will have full access to early voting sites. Killer also noted that there are some tribal elections on the same day. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, where Killer lives, voters can go to the same location to vote both tribal and federal elections, which will have an impact.

Pine Ridge also includes all of Shannon County, which was the most pro-Obama jurisdiction in the nation in 2012, where 93% of voters supported the president. The country will have a heated referendum this year to rename it Oglala Lakota County, since its namesake Peter Shannon, is best known for swindling the Sioux out of their land. This is bound to drive turnout even higher.

But while as one South Dakota Democrat points out that a big increase in Native American turnout can give Weiland a boost of up to 3 or 4 percent on Election Day, “you can’t win on Indian country alone.” Instead, the race is bound to come down to which campaign is best able to take advantage of the sudden scramble for attention and resources over the next three weeks. There’s little modern precedent for a three-way race to suddenly become competitive less than a month before Election Day and it will still be a week before the impact of the surge in television advertising can be felt in polls. Rounds is still the frontrunner and has led in every poll so far. But, in a race this turbulent, anything can happen.