Could Washington have a Senator in 2015 who refuses to caucus with either party?
Larry Pressler has one of the most intriguing biographies in American politics. A former three-term Republican Senator from South Dakota, Pressler has had a varied career as a Rhodes Scholar, Vietnam combat veteran, unsung hero of the ABSCAM scandal, GOP presidential candidate, two-time endorser of Barack Obama and college professor on four different continents. Now the 71-year-old politician, who was first elected to Congress as a 33-year-old political wunderkind is aiming to win his last race as a straight-talking maverick.
In a phone interview last week with The Daily Beast, the former senator, who pulled his car over on the side of the road on the way out of Canton, South Dakota “so I don’t break any rules,” talked about his independent campaign to regain the Senate seat he lost in 1996 and his plans to fix Washington if he returned to Capitol Hill. But Pressler made clear that a second stint in the Senate would be very different than his first.
The 71-year-old is pledging to serve only one term once he’s elected so that he never has to raise a dollar while in office. Pressler is effusive about the possibility of having “six glorious years” where he can just speak to the people, do his job full time and hold listening meetings. He also is filled with regret over the fact that he was too much of party-line man and “played ball” in order to move up in the GOP when first in the Senate and offered voters “a mea culpa” for doing so. Now Pressler’s just running because he thinks it would be fun to serve. “I’ve been in the Senate three terms, so it won’t make much of an addition to your resume and at an age where building your career will not be part of your motivation,” he said.
Instead, Pressler is already figuring out ways that he can leverage his power as a maverick senator. He has had long conversations with Martin Gold, a longtime lawyer and expert on Senate procedure about how he can take advantage of this role. But just because Pressler would be an independent doesn’t mean he’d rule out caucusing with one party or the other. He noted that Wayne Morse of Oregon had once functioned as a true independent, and said he would likely to follow the model of Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who didn’t decide which party to caucus with until he got to Washington.
But whichever party he picks, he still might change his mind. “It seems to me that one can change, as Lieberman threatened to do once or twice,” Pressler said. “If you play that right a lot of things we need to get done” can happen. In a Senate where Republicans are expected to gain several seats in 2014 to erode the current 55-45 majority held by Democrats (which includes two Independents who caucus with Democrats), Pressler would likely have significant leverage.
One possible obstacle for Pressler’s election in this heavily Republican state, though, is his support for Barack Obama. Pressler explained that he and Obama, a fellow Harvard Law alumnus, had become personal friends—although he cautioned, “I don’t want to claim too much only seen him twice since he took office.” At the time, the South Dakotan thought Obama, who opposed the Patriot Act in the Senate, would be an improvement on libertarian issues like reforming government and avoiding foreign interventions. Pressler insisted that “he is my friend and will remain that” but remains “disappointed that he doesn’t appear to have fought harder” on those issues after becoming president.
Pressler also touched on his bit role in the ABSCAM scandal, which has been brought back to popular attention this year in the Oscar nominated film American Hustle. As a freshman Senator, Pressler was offered a bribe by an undercover FBI agent and bluntly turned it down, being the only member of Congress to do so. He told The Daily Beast that he had never used the episode while campaigning, since “vote for me because I turned down a bribe” isn’t the most inspiring slogan. Pressler didn’t mind the fact this his “15 minutes of Andy Warhol-type fame” from the scandal had long ended and that he didn’t have a cameo to appear with Christian Bale or Jennifer Lawrence in the movie. Instead he just was disappointed that they didn’t show any elected officials turning down a bribe and serve as a lesson that “even if the sting is unfair and horrible, you can still say no.”
Even without counting on an Oscar bump from American Hustle, Pressler is philosophical about his chances in November, running against former Republican governor Mike Rounds and populist Democrat and former Tom Daschle aide Rick Weiland. “I think I can win. With 37 to 40 percent of the vote, we can win, and if I don’t, I will have made a great effort to do something with my elderly years,” he said. “In this campaign the journey is more important than the destination.”
The question is whether that will be enough to attract that magic percentage of South Dakota voters in November and make Pressler the third independent in the United States Senate.