RAPID CITY, South Dakota — John Lee, a bartender in this city on the western edge of South Dakota, says he hasn’t really been following the state's suddenly white-hot Senate race, even though his sister-in-law works for Sen. Tim Johnson, the retiring three-term Democrat whose seat is up for grabs. Lee said he knows former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds is running to capture the seat but says he hasn’t tracked the other candidates too closely.
With the election less than a month away, “I’ll start thinking about it,” Lee said. A former theater and English teacher, he wants to make sure South Dakota educators get paid enough and wants Obamacare to be easier to sign up for.
Polls show South Dakota's senate race has become an unexpected toss-up in recent days, throwing both parties' midterm strategies and potential playing fields into disarray. Money has come pouring into the race as polls have shown Rounds, the Republican front-runner, looking more vulnerable than expected. That could make a difference in a once-sleepy race that until recently has received little attention — even from many voters themselves.
Merril Thompson is a big fan of Larry Pressler, the former GOP Senator now running as an independent. “He’s an honest individual who doesn’t talk out of the side of his mouth,” Pressler said, working security at a local Native American pow-wow at Lakota Community Homes, a low-income development in northern Rapid City.
Thompson, a retiree of Native American descent, said he hadn’t been under the impression the Senate race was so close. But when asked whether he planned to vote, Thompson replied: “If I thought for a minute my vote would make a difference, hell yeah.”
Both Lee and Thompson are exactly the kind of voters that the Senate candidates, outside groups, and national parties are scrambling to reach in the final weeks of a midterm election that many Americans have tuned out.
Rounds had been leading most polls by a significant margin for much of the campaign, but a Survey USA poll this week showed him only 3 points ahead of Pressler and 7 points ahead of Rick Weiland, the Democratic nominee. Soon after the poll was released, reports surfaced that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was planning to drop $1 million into TV ad buys and field operations for the race.
This week, Weiland has also received a $1 million pledge of support from Mayday PAC, an outside SuperPAC devoted to curbing the role of big money in politics.
The infusion of money into such a sparsely populated state could make a real difference, says Patrick Ruffini, a GOP strategist and co-founder of Echelon Insights. In terms of ad buys, “the relative volume is pretty low, which means there's an opportunity for an outside spender to make an outsized dent in this race,” Ruffini wrote in an email. This year, Rounds has spent less than $800,000 on TV ads in total, according to the Argus Leader.
Many Democrats feel emboldened by the unexpected polling this week, with some believing that a win by Weiland or Pressler would be a victory for them. Pressler hasn’t said which party he would caucus with if elected, but the former Republican-turned-Independent has made significant moves to the left in recent year, endorsing President Obama and supporting the Affordable Care Act.
“The race is wide open. Mike Rounds has been running for nearly two years, served eight years as governor and should have this race locked up, as this is a Republican majority state. He doesn’t have things locked up,” said Steve Hildebrand, a Democratic political strategist based in Sioux Falls.
“At this point, this is Mike Rounds’s race to lose, and he’s done a good job of losing it," Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand, a Weiland supporter, said the influx of spending could help the Democrat overcome his biggest obstacle in the race. “Rick’s challenge has been competing with the kind of money that Rounds has always had. Leveling the playing field, financially and points wise on TV, is going to make a big difference,” Hildebrand said.
"At this point, this is Mike Rounds’s race to lose, and he’s done a good job of losing it."'
Weiland has tried to turn his financial disadvantage into a virtue, given his stance against big money in politics. “Heyyy, no one’s bought me,” he sings in a new campaign ad, backed by a country band. “Running out to get money out of politics / from the special interest I’m going to take a few hits,” his song continues. (“Embrace the Irony,” Mayday PAC says on its website.)
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointed out that many Democrats had written off the race up until a few days ago.
“This week, they’re pouring money into the race. It’s a sign of desperation that suggests they are losing in other key battleground states. They’re desperately throwing mud at the wall hoping something sticks,” Dayspring wrote in an email.
But the recent spending could prompt groups on both sides to get more involved if the race continues to look competitive. “If the polling stays tight, and it looks like this is a three way race, it will be a battle as lots and lots and lots of money will come in,” said Hildebrand.