Numbers and analysis point toward a defeat for Democratic candidate Rick Weiland and a win for Republican candidate Mike Rounds in the general election for U.S. Senate this November. The presence of former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler in the contest appears to be hurting Weiland much more than Rounds.
Pressler is / was a Republican who voted for President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and is running for a return to the Senate as an independent. Earlier this year we wondered whether Pressler would capture votes from the liberal and moderate Republican voters, while Gordon Howie, a former Republican legislator, would lock in votes from religious conservatives, leaving Rounds with a thinner base of Republican support.
The Pressler candidacy however seems to be capturing the middle that Weiland hasn’t been able to crack. Rounds might or might not reach 50 percent with Pressler and Howie in the race. Howie doesn’t affect Weiland, but Pressler does. Weiland might or might not break 35 percent.
The question then becomes: Could Pressler get more votes than Rounds if Weiland dropped out of the contest altogether and the Democratic Party didn’t replace him?
That is the dilemma facing Democrats. Would they prefer Pressler or Rounds to be elected in November? Tuesday, Aug. 5, is the last day for a candidate to withdraw. The deadline to fill the vacancy is the following Tuesday, Aug. 12.
No candidate for statewide office worked harder than Rick Weiland did in the past year. He’s run twice before and didn’t make it, losing to Republican now-U.S. Sen. John Thune in 1996 and to former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in the 2002 primary. Weiland wasn’t planning to seek the U.S. Senate seat this round but gamely stepped forward for the Democrats’ cause when others didn’t. All of his efforts seem to be bumping against his political ceiling.
It’s highly unlikely that South Dakota Democratic leaders would be willing to get behind Pressler, however. Back in 1996, then-U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson rode the then-strength of the Democratic organization to a true grassroots win over Pressler, the Republican incumbent. Johnson is retiring rather than seek re-election this year, and many think he couldn’t have won if he did run. The anti-Obama tide is that strong, and the Democratic organization is a busted shell these days.
Pressler has vowed to serve only one term. The seat would be up again in 2020. He has almost no money for a campaign but he seems to still have a base of voter support. The Democrats have welcomed some former Republicans into their fold, such as their 2010 gubernatorial nominee, Scott Heidepriem. Democrats also opened their primaries to independents in recent years. Voter registration is swinging increasingly to independents, with Democrats fading and Republicans holding even.
Without much of a chance of Weiland beating Rounds, and with the Rounds campaign successfully moving through a five-way primary that was a test run for November, the move that is left for a weak Democratic organization would be to embrace Larry Pressler as the “independent-Democratic” candidate. Each day that Rick Weiland continues in the race is better and better news for Mike Rounds. With Weiland out, Rounds still has a high probability of winning against Pressler and Howie. But it then becomes a true test of what kind of Republican that South Dakota voters want to replace the last Democrat holding statewide office.