Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 14, 2016

Quirky Ex-Senator Stomps on Democrats’ S.D. Hopes

senate 2014

Johnson is retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

South Dakota Democrats are playing a tough hand in the Senate race, but they thought they could count on a wild card — former Sen. Larry Pressler — to help the contest break their way.

Pressler seems to have other plans.

Democrats already faced long odds to hold retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat. Obama lost South Dakota by 18 points last cycle, and the state marks the GOP’s best pick-up opportunity in its 6-seat quest to win the majority.

The front-runner, popular former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds, faces several foes: Democrat Rick Weiland; state Sen. Gordon Howie, a conservative Republican running as an independent; and Pressler, who served three terms as a Republican but is running as an independent.

Democrats held out hope the race would become competitive if Pressler splintered GOP votes from Rounds. But so far, Pressler is doing the opposite — splitting Democrats and extinguishing the party’s remaining hopes of keeping the seat.

“He seems to be veering to the left,” said Ben Nesselhuf, former South Dakota Democratic Party chairman, in an interview with Roll Call. “I like this Larry Pressler a lot more than I liked the one in the mid 1990s. … His message and Rick Weiland’s message seem to kind of overlap.”

According to a Rounds campaign memo obtained by Roll Call, a mid-June internal poll of 500 likely voters found Pressler’s supporters were more than twice as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, 48 percent to 22 percent. Also in the survey, a hypothetical head-to-head race showed Rounds with 49 percent, Weiland with 24 percent and Pressler with 15 percent.

There’s a reason: Pressler has declared his support for the president’s health care law and frequently invites the president to visit the state to lecture on the law. He had previously endorsed Obama for president and talked up his support for gay marriage. In a recent interview with Roll Call, he highlighted his support for raising taxes on estates worth more than $10 million and offering a five-year path to citizenship for immigrants who enter the country illegally.

“This is my last campaign and I’m saying exactly what I believe,” Pressler said.

Republicans, who once worried Pressler would peel off support from Rounds, now see his campaign as advantageous to them.

Pressler “is a respected former senator … who’s trying to run on issues the Democratic candidate is running on,” said Dick Wadhams, a senior adviser to South Dakota Republicans, in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

Rounds said he thinks Republicans will support him over Pressler because the former senator won’t disclose which party he will caucus with if elected.

“I want to change the makeup of the Senate,” Rounds said. “I’m a Republican, and I’m not going to negotiate with Harry Reid to leave him in power.”

Pressler, meanwhile, denies he’s courting Democratic voters. He said he can’t afford polling to even determine if that would be a good strategy.

According to fundraising disclosures, Pressler’s campaign finished June with less than $60,000 in the bank. He first told CQ Roll Call he had one paid staffer but later called back to explain he also has several campaign volunteers. At one point during his interview with CQ Roll Call, Pressler referred to the Rounds and Weiland campaigns as “serious campaigns.”

This is not Presler’s first quixotic stab at public office. He served three terms in the Senate before losing his seat in 1996, mused about running for mayor of Washington, D.C., and ran a 106-day bid for president in the 1980 election.

But Pressler still boasts strong name identification in the state — enough to impact the race. Rounds’ internal survey showed Pressler is better known than Weiland, with name identification at 87 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

In spite of his recent tilts leftward, Democrats remain optimistic that he will end up hurting Republicans once voters remember his record.

“[Pressler] was a prominent Republican senator for a long period of time, he has deep roots in the Republican Party, and he has a voting record that is in line with the Republican philosophy,” said former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.C., in an interview.

“They used to say that he was more conservative than Justice Helms,” echoed Weiland. “Maybe he’s had some sort of recent conversion.”

Democrats also muse Pressler could reverse his leftward tilt. Either way, they hope voters remember his more conservative track record, and Democrats will return to Weiland’s fold. They’ll need every party vote they can get for Weiland to have a chance.

“The nice part of being the state chair of South Dakota is you were … not expected to win any of these statewide offices right now,” said Nesselhuf. “You take every hail Mary you can.”

The race is rated Republican Favored by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

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  • rachellesd

    considering the whole article is about South Dakota, it would only make sense that Tom Daschle was from SD not SC.

  • Robert Price Rifkin

    have a proposal to make. I want to give a million dollars to the man or woman
    who can explain what makes Washington tick. At my blog, I
    write about the upside down universe of D.C. politics. There’s never a shortage
    of things to skewer. D.C. is the most dysfunctional place in America, maybe the
    world. That million dollars will only be awarded if the man or woman who takes
    the challenge can explain to our liking exactly how things got so screwed up in
    the Capital. And the million will be awarded only if some super rich donor
    comes along and is willing to give me the big bucks so that I can pass it on to
    the worthy winner. All right, so all of the stuff you’ve just read it baloney,
    nonsense, untrue. There is no billion, there will be no million. I just made it
    all up, out of thin air.

    like all the stuff you read about Washington and it’s pols. Wouldn’t it be nice
    if, just for one day, everything about the workings of D.C. became super
    transparent? If we were able to really understand the way the mechanisms work?
    If the politicians on Capital Hill acted like the grownups the nation so
    desperately needs?

    on. And don’t cash that million dollar check. It ain’t coming…

  • terjeanderson

    Do you do anything other than spam other websites with self-promoting off-topic posts trying to drive traffic to your own blog?

  • Charles Graves IV

    Weiland should just drop out and endorse Pressler. With Democratic support, Pressler has a much better shot at attracting enough GOP voters to win and he’d surely caucus with the Dems.

  • Barry_G_Wick

    Pressler, there wasn’t a bill the CIA wanted passed that Pressler didn’t proffer to everybody as gold….and the deregulation of the communications industry. If you hate your Internet provider now…just wait till Pressler allows the CIA to have access to every Internet customer….oh, wait, they already do…gee, thanks Larry.

  • Nobama

    Ya, right. Like there was any hope here to begin with. This one is gone, gone, gone. Has been since Rounds got in.

  • Bob Viering

    He is. Sadly, most of those inside the beltway really couldn’t tell South Dakota from South Carolina if their life depended on it.

  • ID-2

    The only question in this race is what percent of the vote Rounds wins with.

  • Hildebeast

    R +27

  • Hugh Everett

    You’ve got to hand it to Democrats… idea is too far-fetched in the pursuit of electoral victory. They play to win.That’s why I’m hoping that Republicans use the December lame duck sessions to implement the Nebraska-Maine Congressional District Method in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan.

  • daniel155

    There was not that much hope to be stomped on.

  • daniel155

    That is a bad idea even though Democrats would to try to do something similar in Texas or other red states if they had the chance

  • daniel155

    What did it say? You can earn a thousand dollars a second working at home?

  • terjeanderson

    Nope, this is some guy with a blog about politics who does identical posts all over the internet – long stories with his political theories (unrelated to the subject of the story he is posting on) with links to his blog.

  • Wynstone

    Rounds is definitely a heavy favorite to the point of almost calling him a lock, but I’m just not convinced by this polling. I think, on election day, people will settle into more partisan habits and Pressler’s showing will be single digits. I’m in SD and don’t know a single Democrat considering Pressler.

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