In the upcoming 2014 Senate elections, South Dakota is a state that the GOP and most pundits have penciled in as a Republican pickup. But the same was also true in the early stages of the 2012 campaign for the US Senate seat in North Dakota that the GOP was supposed to win.
(No, a “crazy tea party” candidate was not to blame for this should-have-won seat, but if they were we would never hear the end of it. Since it was an establishment pick: crickets.) In fact, the two states are eerily similar and, as such, Republicans need to not take any of these races lightly. Look how the two compare:
+ Romney won SD by 18 points and ND by 19 points in 2012. In 2008, Obama lost both states by an identical 8 points to McCain. Despite this margin of victory, the new Democratic Senate candidate won against the Republican.
+ Democrats Kent Conrad (ND) and Tim Johnson (SD) both enjoyed blowout victories before their votes for Obamacare. After voting for Obamacare, both opted to retire rather than face the voters. Their replacements faced – or will face – better-funded and more well-known Republican establishment approved challengers.
+ The other US Senate Seats went big-time Republican. In South Dakota, the Democrats did not even bother to challenge John Thune in 2010, and he won by default. In North Dakota that same year, former Governor John Hoeven won with over 70% of the vote in a seat vacated by another scared Democrat. The big ND win in 2012 gave GOP confidence in 2012 they would win the other Senate race in 2012 in what was an almost identical situation. They did not.
+ Both Republicans for 2012 ND and 2014 SD were strong in polling. For most of the 2012 campaign, Republican nominee Rick Berg had dominated the polling. He led the final three pre-election polls by an average of 6 points, and by as much as 10. Currently, Mike Rounds has double digit leads against an under-funded challenger.
Though the similarities are there, two key elements “should” prevent a repeat of 2012. First, Obamacare has returned to the front of the national debate. This had disappeared, by design, during the 2012 election. Second, it is a mid-term election and Republicans typically enjoy higher turnout in such elections. But still, Republicans should not take lightly any race in 2014.
After watching incumbent Democratic US Senators in conservative states fall in election after election, perhaps incumbent Tim Johnson saw the writing on the wall. Polls in early 2013 showed Johnson losing to a number of Republicans by double-digits in the state that didn’t even field a Democrat in the 2010 Senate election when John Thune was handed a re-election win. South Dakota should give the Republicans an easy W in their quest to take control of the upper chamber. They need to net 6 seats overall. If they cannot win here, the chances of having the wave election they need are not very good.
The Democratic Candidates
After failing to convince former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to run for the newly opened US Senate seat, the Democrats turned to Rick Weiland, a former political adviser and FEMA appointee. A review of his campaign website shows that ending “big money” in politics is his signature priority. (Note: his “priorities” page can change at any time, but through April 2014 it is so far just a lecture about money in politics.) He also rails against out-of-state money, even though campaign cash tracker Open Secrets finds almost 2/3 of Weiland’s cash haul so far has been from out-of-state donors through the end of March. Also, when compared to his Republican counterpart a greater percentage of his funds have come from PACs rather than individuals. His other stated goals are “fixing” Obamacare and raising the minimum wage.
The Republican Candidates
Former Governor Mike Rounds (2003-2011) is the favored candidate in the GOP primary. In two gubernatorial elections, Rounds enjoyed two easy, double-digit wins against his Democratic opponents. Before that, Rounds spent a decade in the State Senate where he also served as the Senate Majority Leader. Other candidates include State Rep. Stace Nelson, State Sen. Larry Rhoden, and Dr. Annette Bosworth. The candidates have failed to gather much traction – or raise enough funds – to compete with Rounds for most of the primary campaign.
Former US Senator as Spoiler?
Adding to some potential drama in the race is the campaign of Larry Pressler, a former US Senator who was ousted by none other than Tim Johnson back in 1996. Pressler served three terms as a Republican before his ouster. To avoid pesky primary campaigns, Pressler has opted to run as an Independent and claims the cliched yawner of the line that he didn’t leave the GOP but the GOP left him. Pressler now supports gay marriage, higher taxes, and strict gun control. Because remember: the GOP “left him” or something. As a former Republican, Pressler’s run could potentially hurt Rounds. However, his campaign positions are more closely aligned to Weiland’s. Given that it has been nearly two decades since he was last in office, it’s questionable how much of a factor he could be.
Recent Electoral Trends
Over the last 70 years, Republicans have won every presidential election in South Dakota except one (1974). While President Obama over-performed in 2008 when he lost the state by just 8 points, things returned to normal in 2012 when Romney carried the state by almost 20. Though the GOP has dominated national elections in the state, Democrats have also succeeded in the state by claiming to be conservatives or moderate. This strategy worked until the “conservative” Democrats were forced to sign onto extremist liberal Obamacare and other Obama policies. This led to the retirement of many “moderate” politicians over the past few years, including South Dakota’s Tim Johnson.
In 2010, Republican US Senator John Thune didn’t even get a Democratic challenger in his re-election bid. Thune had previously ousted then-Senate Majority Leader Tim Daschle in a 2004 election and, coincidentally, Weiland in a statewide congressional election in 1996. The GOP currently holds all statewide offices and has super-majorities in both the South Dakota State House and Senate. Tim Johnson is currently the only big-name Democrat left.
The Senate seat here has mostly been penciled in as a Republican takeover. Given the political make-up of the state and the national political mood, if the GOP does not win here a major red flag should go up. Not having President Obama on the ballot hurts Weiland, as both 2008 and 2012 proved that Obama’s incredible campaign structure tremendously boosted red-state Democrats. Of course, anything can happen. The media will not be on Rounds’ side and as Indiana and Missouri showed in 2012, candidates can easily be destroyed. The national Democratic Party has not done much in the way of helping Weiland so far. With a dozen or so incumbent seats in danger, they likely won’t have the resources to try and defend a non-incumbent in one of the more GOP-leaning states.