ROLL CALL: Quirky Ex-Senator Dashes Democrats’ Hopes in South Dakota

July 24th, 2014

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This article was written by Colin Diersing and originally appeared in Roll Call.

 

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.

 

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