I received some interesting comments from Democrats about the Capitol Notebook column I wrote for the weekend newspapers regarding the candidacy of former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who’s running for his old seat again 18 years after he lost it to now-retiring U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.
Pressler is a former Republican who’s running as an independent and doing surprisingly well. Johnson is a Democrat who edged Pressler in 1996 largely because Democrats had a vastly superior organization at the counties-level for getting out the vote.
(Republicans finally learned to match that GOTV effort with John Thune’s near victory over Johnson in 2002 and his defeat of U.S. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004. The lessons that Thune mastered, combined with the stall in Democratic voter registration in recent years, has turned South Dakota into a near-total Republican stronghold.)
On Saturday night I received a phone call from a man who said he was Steve Jarding. Jarding is currently the campaign manager for Rick Weiland, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Experience told me instantly that phone calls from political types after 9 p.m. on a Saturday likely won’t be productive, unless there is breaking news. There wasn’t any breaking news.
Instead, this caller asked if he could call me back Sunday. I said Monday morning would be better. We had family visiting for the weekend. The caller and I settled on 9 o’clock. There wasn’t a call this morning.
I received an email from a long-time Democratic activist. I remain unsure what the real point was, other than to raise again some of the same points that were made against Pressler in 1996.
I don’t know that Pressler can pass Weiland or the Republican nominee and frontrunner, former Gov. Mike Rounds. But the assumption made by the Weiland camp as of last spring that Pressler would hurt Rounds has proven only partially true. Pressler seems to be taking as many votes away from Weiland as from Rounds. That statement is based on what we’re hearing and seeing from campaign polls and from the independent survey conducted in early September for the Aberdeen American News, KSFY TV and KOTA TV.
Where the Senate race might be headed is a repeat of the 2002 Republican primary for governor. Rounds won after the two frontrunners, then-Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, stalled in the polls. Rounds smiled all the way to victory as he picked up many of the undecided voters who didn’t the like negativity of Barnett and Kirby toward each other.
Rounds and Weiland have run TV ads lately on the EB-5 matter. Neither of their ads is totally accurate. Rounds’ ad is the bigger dodge. EB-5 was indeed his program. His Cabinet pursued expansions of it hard from the federal agency that oversees it. His Cabinet secretary Richard Benda signed the contract in 2009 privatizing EB-5 administration, with state government to receiving percentages of the fees paid by foreign investors to the private company run by Joop Bollen of Aberdeen.
As I’ve noted in previous posts about the recent independent poll, there weren’t enough undecided voters left for Weiland or Pressler to catch Rounds. Any change in the ranking will have to result from voters leaving one candidate in favor of another. The theory of late among some Democrats is that Pressler was brought into the race by the Rounds camp as a buffer against Weiland. That would make for quite an interesting story if true. It also would make for brilliant strategy if it works.
It also might be sour grapes among Democratic insiders who can’t fathom that Pressler might actually be the right fit for the times, with independent voter registration so strong in recent years. Rounds and Weiland have to fight on two fronts — against each other and against Pressler — while Pressler can run against the status quo of the two-party system.
This could finish as the most fascinating election for major office in South Dakota’s history.