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Something's stirring in South Dakota?

The conventional wisdom said South Dakota's Senate race would be an easy win for the GOP. Those assumptions are due for an overhaul.
Mike Rounds, Republican candidate in 2014 for U.S. Senate in South Dakota speaks at the South Dakota Republican Convention at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, S.D., June 20, 2014. (Photo by Toby Brusseau/AP)
Mike Rounds, Republican candidate in 2014 for U.S. Senate in South Dakota speaks at the South Dakota Republican Convention at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, S.D., June 20, 2014.
One of the reasons Republicans are so optimistic about taking control of the U.S. Senate is the geography of the 2014 battlegrounds. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats, but with Democratic incumbents retiring in three red states -- Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia -- Republicans believe they're halfway to their goal before ballots are even cast.
To be sure, that optimism is well-grounded. But what if one of the easy pick-up opportunities turned out to be a little less easy than everyone thought?
In South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is in the midst of a three-way contest -- there are a few of these this year -- against Rick Weiland (D) and Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator who's running as an independent. Nate Silver explained last night that the race is getting tricky.

Rounds remains the favorite. It's not clear that Pressler has enough money to run a substantial number of advertisements in the closing days of the campaign -- or to finance a voter turnout operation. [...] But the race increases the chance that we'll have a "messy" outcome on Election Day.

For months, Rounds' victory seemed all but certain. In an unfortunate August gaffe, Weiland, the Democratic candidate and former Tom Daschle aide, accidentally referred to Rounds "senator, or, soon-to-be," before catching himself.
But the contest has grown far more interesting since. In September, two statewide polls showed the race tightening, and yesterday, a Survey USA poll found all three candidates separated by just seven points: Rounds with 35% support, Pressler at 32%, and Weiland a competitive third with 28%.
Like Kansas, South Dakota was supposed to be a race that national observers could safely ignore. Like Kansas, the ground has shifted in unexpected ways.
And there's reason to think it may yet shift further.
Weiland, for example, isn't getting any real support from Beltway Democrats who assume he's going to come up short, but he's not without allies., the crowd-funded Super PAC launched by Larry Lessig to back "anti-corruption," and pro-campaign finance reform candidates is beginning a $1 million ad buy in South Dakota's heretofore sleepy Senate race. It's on behalf of Rick Weiland, the Democratic candidate and two-time loser of statewide races who, up until now, has been considered an afterthought.

As for the assumptions that the Republican was a shoo-in, Rounds' support has faltered in the wake of a new scandal.

In recent weeks, South Dakota headlines have been dominated by news about a scandal involving the administration of former Governor Mike Rounds -- the GOP Senate nominee. The scandal, which has been simmering for some time, involves the state's administration of federal funds for the EB-5 program, which provides visas for immigrants who invest $500,000 or more in rural or high unemployment areas. The scandal's details are complex -- here's a roundup of key stories from the Argus Leader's David Montgomery -- but some Rounds appointees have been implicated in mismanaging contracts and funds involved in the privatization of the program, and one actually committed suicide shortly before he was to be indicted for embezzling half a million dollars.

To answer your next question, we don't know which party Pressler would caucus with if he ends up winning. He was a moderate Republican, but he grew disillusioned with the GOP's march to the far right and Pressler ended up endorsing Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
And to answer your other question, no, there is no chance that Weiland would pull a Chad Taylor, quit the race, and propel Pressler past Rounds. Why not? Because unlike Taylor, Weiland still has a decent shot of actually winning this race.