South Dakota’s three way race for the Senate looks like it should be an easy victory for the GOP. Republican Mike Rounds had 45% in the latest poll, well ahead of Democrat Rick Weiland at 31% and independent Larry Pressler at 21%.
Yet three way races can be tricky, and if any state could produce a stunner Tuesday, independent minded South Dakota would be it. It’s a small state (population 840,000), much less dependent on advertising than the rest of the country. Larry Pressler has been dramatically outspent, 58 to 1 against Rounds, and 19 to 1 against Weiland. Yet that doesn’t matter.
The two largest state newspapers, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Rapid City Journal endorsed Pressler this weekend. South Dakota’s “Walter Cronkite” – 30 year news anchor Steve Hemmingsen did something he never did before – endorse a candidate: Pressler. All this happened since the last poll came out. Beyond that, Rounds is in trouble due to an on going FBI investigation on improper work visas while Pressler is touted for being the only Senator to refuse a bribe during the infamous ABSCAM sting in the late seventies. While many politicians were arrested and convicted, Pressler refused and reported the incident to the FBI.
Former FBI investigator John Good came to South Dakota to endorse Pressler, highlighting Round’s FBI troubles. Pressler has always focused on his relationship with the Lakota Sioux and when in office did better than most Republicans in winning the Indian vote. He has the largest native American newspaper endorsement as well, the Native Sun News. Tim Giago, long a leading spokesman for the Sioux, wrote warmly in endorsing Pressler.
My point: in a small state like South Dakota, full of independent minded voters, willing to change their minds and take a chance, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Pressler could either win, or become a spoiler.
32 year old Vietnam Vet Pressler was first elected to the House in 1974, as a “new broom that would sweep clean” in a capital burdened by the Watergate affair – a year otherwise difficult for Republicans. In 1978 he successfully won the Senate seat he would keep until 1996. That year he lost to Democrat Tim Johnson, whose retirement makes his former seat open.
I worked for Pressler as a Senate aide from 1983 to 85 in Washington. He was a moderate Republican, more along the lines of Olympia Snowe than the conservative wing of the party. Working briefly on Indian Affairs, I remember talking a few times to Tim Giago, who informed me that while it’s best to use the nation name (Lakota Sioux, for example), ‘native American’ was no better than ‘Indian.” More importantly, I grew up in South Dakota, and most of my family lives there.
The state’s political culture defies easy labels. On the one hand, it is one of the most Republican states in the union. Yet it gave us Senator George McGovern, Senator Tom Daschle and Senator Tim Johnson. The reason? South Dakotans vote first for the man (or woman) than party. To have any interest in politics in South Dakota is to have not only shaken hands with most politicians, but to have chatted with them.
Pressler defies easy labels as well, putting him in sync with his state. A life long Republican, he endorsed Obama twice and supports Obamacare. He certainly isn’t liberal, however, and supports the idea of working to build compromise and fix the tone in Washington.
Candidates visit even the smallest towns; the personal touch is of paramount importance. Again, if there is any state in the country where the polls could be proven so wrong, South Dakota is it.
Does this mean I think Pressler will win? No. But I wouldn’t rule it out. The nature of South Dakota politics and the volatility of any three way races means large shifts can happen near the end of a campaign.
So don’t expect, but don’t be surprised, if the big story Tuesday night is of the shocking late surge and victory of independent Larry Pressler to reclaim the seat he lost 18 years ago.