Late-Breaking Scandal Could Shake Up SD Senate Race
Policy + Politics

Late-Breaking Scandal Could Shake Up SD Senate Race

The three-way race for South Dakota’s open Senate seat got more complicated Wednesday, when the Sioux Falls Argus Leader published a page one story alleging that former Governor Mike Rounds, the Republican candidate and current leader in the polls, had approved $600,000 in state assistance to a company that was about hire a member of his cabinet.

According to reporter David Montgomery, then Secretary of Tourism and State Development Richard Benda requested the assistance for Northern Beef Packers about two weeks before he and Rounds were to leave office. Benda was about to go to work for a company with an investment in the plant – something Montgomery reports that Rounds knew while he remained in office, either at the time he signed off on the assistance, or shortly thereafter.

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The article quotes Rounds saying, “My staff told me that when he was leaving state government, he was going to work for an investor in the beef plant.”

Rounds now says that his former Tourism Secretary misled him. Benda, who later faced accusations that, once in the private sector, he had redirected state grant money to pay his own salary, committed suicide in October 2013. 

South Dakota, originally seen as a near-certain pickup for Republicans in the race to gain control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, has become far more competitive than many expected, and the new revelations about Rounds could have an impact on a race that will likely be won by a candidate who receives less than 40 percent of the vote.

Rounds’ Democratic challenger is businessman Rick Weiland, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) who has been running a few points behind Rounds in the polls. Complicating the race is former Sen. Larry Pressler, a one-time Republican who is running as an independent. Polling has shown that Pressler has gained considerable ground in recent weeks, though most surveys still have him in third place. A complicating factor is State Sen. Gordon Howie, a conservative who is running to Rounds’ right, and taking a small percentage of the vote.

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Polling that asks voters to choose between Rounds and Pressler in a theoretical head-to-head matchup shows Pressler winning handily. A similar head-to-head between Rounds and Weiland was a dead heat.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate for the next two years, and South Dakota, which looked like a solid pickup for the GOP, saw an influx of spending by both parties in the last week as polls show the race tightening. While Republican spending was primarily to support Rounds, the Democratic money was placed in ads attacking Rounds rather than supporting Weiland, suggesting that at this point, the Democrats care more about seeing Rounds lose than about which of his challengers actually wins.

If the Democrats see an opportunity in the revelation about Rounds signing off on the aid to Northern Beef, South Dakotans might be treated to another late surge of attack ads in the campaign’s final weeks.

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