South Dakota Democrats are playing a tough hand in the Senate race, but they thought they could count on a wild card — former Sen. Larry Pressler — to help the contest break their way.
Pressler seems to have other plans.
Democrats already faced long odds to hold retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's seat. Obama lost South Dakota by 18 points last cycle, and the state marks the GOP's best pick-up opportunity in its 6-seat quest to win the majority.
The front-runner, popular former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds, faces several foes: Democrat Rick Weiland; state Sen. Gordon Howie, a conservative Republican running as an independent; and Pressler, who served three terms as a Republican but is running as an independent.
Democrats held out hope the race would become competitive if Pressler splintered GOP votes from Rounds. But so far, Pressler is doing the opposite — splitting Democrats and extinguishing the party's remaining hopes of keeping the seat.
“He seems to be veering to the left,” said Ben Nesselhuf, former South Dakota Democratic Party chairman, in an interview with Roll Call. “I like this Larry Pressler a lot more than I liked the one in the mid 1990s. … His message and Rick Weiland’s message seem to kind of overlap.”
According to a Rounds campaign memo obtained by Roll Call, a mid-June internal poll of 500 likely voters found Pressler's supporters were more than twice as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, 48 percent to 22 percent. Also in the survey, a hypothetical head-to-head race showed Rounds with 49 percent, Weiland with 24 percent and Pressler with 15 percent.
There's a reason: Pressler has declared his support for the president's health care law and frequently invites the president to visit the state to lecture on the law. He had previously endorsed Obama for president and talked up his support for gay marriage . In a recent interview with Roll Call, he highlighted his support for raising taxes on estates worth more than $10 million and offering a five-year path to citizenship for immigrants who enter the country illegally.
“This is my last campaign and I’m saying exactly what I believe,” Pressler said.
Republicans, who once worried Pressler would peel off support from Rounds, now see his campaign as advantageous to them.
Pressler "is a respected former senator … who’s trying to run on issues the Democratic candidate is running on,” said Dick Wadhams, a senior adviser to South Dakota Republicans, in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Rounds said he thinks Republicans will support him over Pressler because the former senator won’t disclose which party he will caucus with if elected.
“I want to change the makeup of the Senate,” Rounds said. “I’m a Republican, and I’m not going to negotiate with Harry Reid to leave him in power."
Pressler, meanwhile, denies he’s courting Democratic voters. He said he can’t afford polling to even determine if that would be a good strategy.
According to fundraising disclosures, Pressler's campaign finished June with less than $60,000 in the bank. He first told CQ Roll Call he had one paid staffer but later called back to explain he also has several campaign volunteers. At one point during his interview with CQ Roll Call, Pressler referred to the Rounds and Weiland campaigns as “serious campaigns.”
This is not Presler's first quixotic stab at public office. He served three terms in the Senate before losing his seat in 1996, mused about running for mayor of Washington, D.C., and ran a 106-day bid for president in the 1980 election.
But Pressler still boasts strong name identification in the state — enough to impact the race. Rounds' internal survey showed Pressler is better known than Weiland, with name identification at 87 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
In spite of his recent tilts leftward, Democrats remain optimistic that he will end up hurting Republicans once voters remember his record.
“[Pressler] was a prominent Republican senator for a long period of time, he has deep roots in the Republican Party, and he has a voting record that is in line with the Republican philosophy,” said former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.C., in an interview.
“They used to say that he was more conservative than Justice Helms," echoed Weiland. "Maybe he’s had some sort of recent conversion."
Democrats also muse Pressler could reverse his leftward tilt. Either way, they hope voters remember his more conservative track record, and Democrats will return to Weiland's fold. They'll need every party vote they can get for Weiland to have a chance.
“The nice part of being the state chair of South Dakota is you were … not expected to win any of these statewide offices right now," said Nesselhuf. “You take every hail Mary you can.”
The race is rated Republican Favored by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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