GOP Suddenly Looks Vulnerable in South Dakota Senate Battle
Policy + Politics

GOP Suddenly Looks Vulnerable in South Dakota Senate Battle

The strange three-way Senate race in South Dakota heated up this week with a new poll showing the GOP nominee’s lead shrinking — and with the revelation that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will commit $1 million to the race, largely to fund ads attacking him. 

The Republican frontrunner, former Governor Mike Rounds, is competing with Democrat Rick Weiland and the state’s former Republican Senator, Larry Pressler, who now identifies as an Independent. Rounds has led for most of the cycle, and recent polls had shown the race tightening only slightly, with Pressler gaining ground. 

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On Wednesday, though, a new poll released by SurveyUSA showed that support for Rounds had fallen dramatically, while Pressler’s had jumped. The survey, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, gave Rounds 35 percent of the vote, Pressler 32 percent, and Weiland 28 percent. The Senate seat will go to the person with the most votes, even if that candidate doesn’t secure an outright majority, so it is quite possible that the winner will claim victory with only little more than a third of votes cast. 

The three-man race has created a volatile situation, and national Democrats are, apparently, only too happy to add to the confusion. On Wednesday afternoon, Bloomberg reported that the DSCC had decided to pour $1 million into the race — a sum that, in South Dakota’s inexpensive media market, will allow it to blanket the airwaves with anti-Rounds messaging. The Bloomberg report, based on an interview with an unnamed DSCC official, said that ads attacking Rounds would be on the air by early next week. 

Particularly interesting here is that the DSCC appears to be joining the race not so much in order to support Weiland but simply to damage Rounds. The hope appears to be that Rounds will lose, with whom he loses to a secondary concern. 

Plus, if Pressler, a moderate, were to win, he would have at least a couple of reasons to consider caucusing with the Democrats. First, the GOP has worked hard to marginalize him. Second, aligning himself with the Democrats now could bring added benefits if the party was to retake the Senate in 2016 (assuming the Republicans win it this year). Polling analyst Nate Silver assumes there’s a 75 percent chance Pressler would caucus with the Republicans if he wins, but also notes that the candidate had endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and has suggested me might refuse to caucus with either party. From the perspective of the DSCC, one fewer GOP seat might be nearly as good as one more Democratic one. 

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Still, the likelihood that Rounds will actually lose remains unclear. Silver wrote yesterday that if anybody is likely to beat Rounds, it’s Pressler, not Weiland. But, Silver said, the odds seemed poor because Pressler didn’t have the funding to run the necessary ads. With the Democrats’ infusion of cash into the race — even though the money won’t be going to Pressler directly — that may be less of an issue. 

In any case, even if the Democrats are unable to pull off an upset in South Dakota, the fact that the race now looks competitive could force the GOP, which is currently plying defense in Kansas, to redirect money and other resources to South Dakota, a result that the Democrats would no doubt view as, if nothing else, a limited victory. 

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