Should Rick Weiland drop out to possibly stop Mike Rounds?

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.

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

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