Four candidates vying to be South Dakota’s next U.S. senator clashed in a debate Thursday over a controversial immigration investment program known as EB-5, which has plagued the race’s frontrunner, former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who is now running as an Independent, faced off against Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent Gordon Howie during a one-hour debate. The candidates hammered Rounds for corruption related to the visa program under his tenure as governor, which is now dogging his campaign and complicating the outcome of the once safe Republican Senate seat.
Rounds said both former Sen. Tom Daschle and retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, both Democrats, supported the program and claimed Pressler did too when he represented South Dakota in Congress.
“Support for the program wasn’t support for the corruption,” Pressler shot back.
Pressler, who pledged to serve one term, is running as a unifying force that can break through partisan gridlock. If elected, he said he could be one of potentially four Independents in the U.S. Senate (referring to Angus King of Maine, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Greg Orman of Kansas) who could form the first Independent caucus in the Senate’s history. Pressler also said Independents could pick the next Senate majority leader and broker compromises that would avoid government shutdowns.
“South Dakota needs a senator who’s not going to impeach Obama but will work with him,” Pressler said. “You can be friends with both sides and work with both sides.”
Weiland, who was not the first choice to run for the seat among national Democrats, vowed to vote against Harry Reid as majority leader if elected, accusing Reid of being part of the problem in Washington. He also challenged Rounds to pledge to vote against Mitch McConnell if he were up for majority leader if Republicans take control of the Senate.
All four candidates are competing to fill the open seat being vacated by Johnson. The contest has garnered national attention in recent weeks as polls have showed Weiland and Pressler within striking distance of Rounds, who was once thought to be a shoo-in to win in November. Both national Republicans and Democrats have invested in the race on the heels of Round’s mounting troubles and mixed polling.