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Weiland Is Democrats' Best Hope in S.D., for Now

When the dust settled in South Dakota this week from high-profile jockeying in the Democratic Senate primary field, Rick Weiland was the last man standing.

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s top recruit, announced Monday she would not run. And retiring Sen. Tim Johnson’s son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, made it clear to Weiland that he was sitting out the race.

Weiland, who was a longtime aide to ex-Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., shocked party leaders in Sioux Falls and on Capitol Hill last week when he entered the race to replace the retiring senator. At least so far, party leaders aren’t welcoming him with open arms.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call one week into his campaign, Weiland, whom Daschle has endorsed, said he still hasn’t heard from national Democratic leadership, even after Herseth Sandlin’s exit from the race.

“We’re just coming up for air,” Weiland said. “In all honesty, I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking with the DSCC and explaining why I think this is a winnable race.”

The loss of Herseth Sandlin, a centrist Democrat with four statewide wins under her belt, was a blow to the party’s hopes of keeping the seat. The DSCC, which doesn’t comment publicly on its recruitment strategies, pledged Monday to field a competitive candidate next year, and it’s unlikely Weiland will be the only Democrat in the race by the June 2014 primary.

If Weiland wins the nomination, Republicans will likely paint him as too liberal for South Dakota, a state President Barack Obama lost in 2012 by 18 points. Ward Baker, the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday that Weiland is part of the Democrats’ “metastasizing progressive problem.”

While Republicans’ optimism here increased, the specter of a conservative primary challenge to former Gov. Mike Rounds, the favorite of the national GOP, did as well. Rep. Kristi Noem, who defeated Herseth Sandlin in 2010, is still “taking a serious look” at the race, her consultant Justin Brasell said.

Neither party’s leadership may think much of Weiland yet, but Daschle and Steve Jarding, a veteran Democratic operative and a South Dakota native, believe he will be a strong candidate next fall.

Weiland wasn’t just a Capitol Hill staffer for Daschle for 15 years. He was Daschle’s national finance director in 1986 and traveled the country alongside the future Senate majority leader on fundraising trips.

“He raised money. He was Tom’s lead political guy. He knows all the players. He knows all the money guys,” said Jarding, who helped elect Daschle in 1986 and managed Johnson’s last campaign.

“Having known Rick for many years, I am confident he will be a candidate with the passion, the energy and the drive to fight for what he believes will help the people of South Dakota,” Daschle said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

South Dakota’s relatively small Democratic donor base means Weiland will need to fundraise nationally. Asked whether he hopes Daschle will help with that, Weiland said, “I’m counting on it.”

For now, Weiland’s operation is just getting started. He termed his house “Grand Central” and said he counted seven laptop computers splashed around his living-room-turned-campaign-headquarters the other day. He’s hired Mike Lux, a partner at a liberal consulting firm, but he was not ready to announce any other staffing additions.

Weiland has run and lost two campaigns for South Dakota’s at-large House seat — to Herseth Sandlin in the 2002 primary and to now-Sen. John Thune in the 1996 general.

After leaving politics, Weiland spent the past 10 years as a top executive at the International Code Council and served for a year as the state director of AARP. Weiland and his wife currently own two Sioux Falls businesses, a restaurant and an event hall and lounge.

Ryan Casey, the Lincoln County Democratic Party chairman, tried to entice Brendan Johnson into the race but is now firmly behind Weiland. He’s realistic about the party’s chances next year but said Weiland could pull it off.

“I think any Democrat starts out as an underdog in a state like South Dakota,” Casey said, “but I still think Rick Weiland has a chance.”

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