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A wild card in South Dakota

A Christian conservative tea party activist could end up spoiling the tight Senate race for Republicans.
Gordon Howie, R-Rapid City speaks at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2005 in Pierre, S.D. (Photo by Doug Dreyer/AP)
Gordon Howie, R-Rapid City speaks at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2005 in Pierre, S.D.

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Gordon Howie’s Senate campaign has just one staffer, 18 Twitter followers and less money raised than his rivals have spent in a single week on ads. He boasts about having once spent the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, sleeping in his campaign’s RV, then buying breakfast for his whole campaign the next morning. The price tag: $7.04.

But in an unexpectedly tight and volatile Senate race—with the three leading candidates polling within single digits of one another and a ton of money flooding the state—the unapologetically Christian conservative could help to spoil the race for Republican frontrunner Mike Rounds.

A former state GOP senator running as an Independent, Howie has mostly polled in the low single digits. But earlier this month, Public Policy Polling found him as high as 12%, “pushing his support to the point where it provides a real threat to Rounds,” the left-leaning firm said. 

Howie, who founded a local tea party group, believes that he is the only “true conservative choice” in the race, blasting Rounds for being a squish on taxes and abortion. Dogged by an ongoing scandal over an immigrant visa program, Rounds drew a 51% unfavorable rating in a new poll—one conducted by a GOP firm, to boot—and Howie’s campaign could be an alternative for disillusioned conservative voters. 

Howie, 65, doesn’t have much establishment support. Though he’s fiercely anti-abortion, National Right to Life has already endorsed Rounds. A press release promoted the endorsement from one former GOP state senator but said “other high ranking Republicans” will only support him anonymously—“for fear of retribution from establishment Republicans.”

“Private assurances of support continue to come in,” Howie explained. 

But any votes that Howie takes away from Rounds could also help empower even more liberal alternatives: Democrat Rick Weiland and former GOP senator-turned-Independent Larry Pressler, both of whom have come within 3 to 4 points of Rounds in recent polls, suddenly prompting Democrats, Republicans, and outside groups to dump millions into a race that was once considered a lock for Rounds, the former GOP governor. 

When asked about the prospect that he might spoil the race for conservatives, Howie simply replied, “Duty belongs to us, results belong to God.”

Sitting in a sandwich shop in downtown Rapid City, Howie was flanked by two old friends who were visiting from out of town, one of whom wore a neon sweatshirt that read, “Jesus said, if you love me, keep my commandments.” His lone campaign staffer, Nick Reid, runs a specialty coffee-roasting company upstairs. 

“There’s something going on, something stirring,” said Howie, reflecting on the recent turbulence in the race.

Howie believes that God has called on him to run and vows to fight the “secular interests” bound to attack him from both parties “I believe that God calls us to serve Him in a variety ways, many of which are not always comfortable,” he said when he declared his candidacy.

His first priority in the Senate? “Overturn Roe vs. Wade,” he said, vowing to use the bully pulpit to help fuel the battle in the courts. “The strategy has to begin with someone who assumes the microphone—I don’t see anyone taking the lead role in that cause." 

In the statehouse, Howie sponsored a bill that would ban almost all abortions with exceptions for rape and incest, but only in cases reported to authorities with DNA evidence and the alleged perpetrators’ identities in cases of incest. He knocks Rounds at every opportunity for vetoing a similar bill in 2004

And he believes churches should be able to participate fully in politics, calling rules restricting their involvement the product of “a fictitious separate between church and state.”

God “will bless or curse this nation according to the course Christians take in politics,” Howie said in one campaign video. 

Howie’s media presence has also raised eyebrows in the past. He hosts a conservative blog, The Right Side, where one regular contributor warned in 2012 that if liberals took control, “Gay sex will prosper, racial blending will surge, a food-stamp mentality will flourish, and harassed women will be prominent in the consumer-driven workforce.” The comments have since been removed from the post. “There are certain things you don’t tolerate,” explained Howie, who said the comments about interracial relationships don’t reflect his views.

But Howie believes that more voters will start flocking to him once they finally realize who he is. “They haven’t had real look at me yet, but they’re about to get that,” he said. 

With only between $50,000 and $60,000 raised so far, according to Reid, the Howie campaign’s reach so far has been limited. He has run some TV spots in the eastern part of the state, but hasn’t been able to afford ad buys in the west; he doesn’t have any radio spots, either. A post on his campaign website, “Former President Endorses Howie Tax Plan,” turned out to be a video of Howie posing with a statue of Calvin Coolidge. 

Still, as the race heats up, with national attention and more money pouring in, Howie could gain more exposure at the candidate forums and other public events that he dutifully attends throughout the state. Like Weiland and Pressler, Howie has assailed Rounds for the EB-5 immigration scandal that has dominated the headlines for months. A former Rounds cabinet member had been under investigation for misuse of funds from the visa program for foreign investors, then was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last year. The issue has continued to loom over his campaign.

“Unlike my opponent, I would never sell citizenship,” Howie said in a video that also poked fun at Sen. Rand Paul for his hasty exit when pro-immigrant activists showed up at his table. Howie took the poll showing a surge of support for Pressler as a good sign that voters will eventually turn to him. 

“People across South Dakota are saying that leaders of both parties have failed us,” Howie said in a new ad. He continued: “Which leaves the question, who represents your values, Pressler on the left, or Howie on the right?”

Far from spoiling the race, Howie genuinely believes that he could win it in a massive upset. He pointed to David Brat’s surprise victory over Eric Cantor as a promising sign, illustrating the news on his website with a cross and orange sunbeams. 

“If voters in South Dakota are true to form and vote their conservative values," he said, "I think we win by a landslide."