Spearfish, South Dakota — Out on the Western plains, where the rolling Black Hills meet the broad expanse of cattle-dotted fields, Rick Weiland is betting that old-fashioned prairie populism—with a healthy dose of Elizabeth Warren—will help his Senate campaign prevail.
“I’m the candidate that’s running, that’s not out there trying to be beholden to the big oil executives that are running our energy policy, or the big corporate CEOs that are running our tax policy or the big pharmaceutical companies, the big insurance companies who are running our health care policy,” the Democratic Senate candidate told a group of college students and local residents at a Thursday town hall.
Weiland has taken his message of economic populism across the state in a maroon minivan, boasting that he has visited every of one of South Dakota’s 311 incorporated towns. His first priority: To get rid of big money in politics and reverse the impact of Citizens United. He's printed the proposed constitutional amendment on the back of all of his campaign’s business cards.
“So that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of the few, shall direct the course of this Republican, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections,” he read to the audience gathered in the basement of Black Hills State University’s student union.
But whether he likes it or not, it’s big money that could come to Weiland’s rescue in a surprisingly tight race that could help determine whether Republicans succeed in taking control of the Senate. After a poll this week found that former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds leading Weiland and Republican-turned-Independent Larry Pressler by just single digits, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it would sink $1 million into the race. And that was just a few days after Weiland received $1 million in support from Mayday PAC, a crowd-funded group that shares his goal of ending big money in politics.
Experts believe that money could help Weiland, and his opponents certainly aren't happy about it. "Hypocrite and liar Rick Weiland has been whining about the evils of 'dark money' for more than a year but yet another 'dark money' Super PAC has announced it will spend more than $1 million on television ads supporting Weiland," Dick Wadhams, a spokesman for the South Dakota Republican Party, said in a statement.
Though most polls have Weiland running second to Pressler, the most recent one from Survey USA showed Pressler ahead of Weiland and trailing Rounds by just 3 points. The new conventional wisdom in Washington is that a victory by Pressler, a former three-term GOP senator, would still be a gain for Democrats, as he has cast himself as an old-school moderate, “friend of Obama,” and fan of Obamacare who has declined to say which party he would caucus with.
Weiland warned the audience at Black Hills State not to be fooled. “I’m the only Democrat running in November. I’m running against three Republicans,” he said, alluding to Rounds, Pressler and Tea Party activist Gordon Howie, another former Republican-turned-Independent.
Peppered with questions about Obamacare, the minimum wage and tax reform, Weiland laid out the rest of his agenda (allowing people to “buy into Medicare at any age,” eliminating the payroll tax cap on Social Security) and took shots at certain corporate boogeymen (General Electric for avoiding taxes, the Koch brothers for investing in the Keystone XL Pipeline).
All neatly hit on the same message: “The easiest path to Washington is to sell your soul to big money and corporate interests and vote the way they want you to vote when they get there.” (He reassured the audience, however, that he was "not against capitalism—"I'm a free-market guy" and, by the way, a restaurant owner.)
Weiland believes he’s part of a grand tradition of economic populists in the state—one that certain Democrats ignored by writing off the race for so long.
“This is a part of the country that has produced progressive, I would say, economic populists like Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin and Tom Daschle and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad—you just go down the list. That’s who we send to Washington,” he said in an interview with msnbc. “Sometimes you’ve got to hit it right, and the stars need to align. But I know my state.”
He's also cast himself in the mold of Massachusetts's Sen. Warren, whose emphasis on fighting income inequality and corporate greed has revived the party’s dispirited liberal base.
“If there are Elizabeth Warrens out there, a lot of people breathing this populist economic message, we’ve got a shot,” he said, describing his hope to get big money out of politics.
That’s welcome news to Robert Hudecek, 24, a self-identified Democrat who has felt disillusioned with the party as of late. “They just seem to want to compromise with the Republican Party, which is basically an extension of the tea party,” said Hudecek, who’s studying social science education at Black Hills State University.
Hudecek doesn’t consider himself very political anymore, but he came out to Weiland’s town hall after hearing that the Senate race was closer than expected. He wasn’t expecting much but came away impressed, describing Weiland as an “old-fashioned Democrat”—in a good way.
Cody Drolc, 20, who helped organize the Weiland event, said that many students are not only apathetic, but also openly hostile to the idea of even being politically involved. “They’re aggressive—they treat me like I’m working for someone, to get some benefit out of them,” said Drolc, a political science student, describing his experience running voter registration drives on campus.
South Dakota students aren’t alone in shunning electoral politics right now. A recent Pew poll found that only 15% of Americans are following the midterms “very closely.”
National Democrats are betting the last-minute injection of money and ad buys will make a difference in a relative small media market. Weiland was noncommittal when asked whether the outside money that he disdains could actually help him. “I don’t know, we’ll see,” he said.
But he also stressed that his own campaign still needs to raise more funds to keep their radio and TV ads on the air.
Darlene Swartz felt inspired enough to break out her own checkbook after Weiland’s town hall. But she remained downbeat about Democrats’ prospects in the state.
“In South Dakota, I think that Democrats just don’t have a chance. The Republicans are just so powerful, they can buy all the votes,” said Swartz, a retired faculty member at the university. When asked whether Weiland in particular might be able to pull of a victory, she said, simply: “We can always hope.”