Rick Weiland will be the Democratic Senate nominee in South Dakota, but party leaders are less than thrilled about it.
Stuck with a candidate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has publicly trashed and a race the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely leaves off its competitive list, the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). now looks like a lost cause for Democrats who face an increasingly difficult map to hold onto the Senate.
Filing for the June primary closed on Tuesday, and Weiland will be the only Democrat running. He’ll likely face off against the winner of a crowded GOP race — expected to be former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) — and former GOP Sen. Larry Pressler, who’s running as an independent.
In an interview last summer, Reid declared Weiland is “not my choice.” A Reid aide confirmed Daschle met with the majority leader to discuss Weiland’s candidacy, but said he remains “skeptical.”
“Sen. Daschle has been an advocate for Rick Weiland; however, Sen. Reid is skeptical. In the end, it will be up to Rick Weiland to prove he is capable of winning the race, and that is going to take time,” the aide told The Hill.
“Like any other candidate, Rick needs to demonstrate that this is a winnable race. He is beginning to do that. If/when he does, I am confident that the DSCC will be very supportive,” Daschle told The Hill.
He declined to comment on his conversations with Reid.
Weiland entered the race after two other top-tier candidates — Johnson’s son, U.S. attorney Brendan Johnson, and former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin — opted out. Many believed Reid was working to convince Herseth Sandlin to change her mind.
The DSCC has consistently insisted it would have a strong option, likening the race to North Dakota in 2012, when the last-minute entry of Democrat Heidi Heitkamp delivered the party a winning candidate.
But with no other Democrats in the race, there are now no other options for the DSCC. And Weiland is certainly no centrist like Heitkamp. He’s the rare critic of ObamaCare who says it doesn’t go far enough; he opposes the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that remains popular with conservatives; and he has received the backing of Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, a national progressive group.
Critics say that strategy won’t work in South Dakota, with a voting population that’s 45 percent Republican and where GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney won with nearly 60 percent over the vote.
Craig Lawrence, chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, said he’s confident widespread opposition to the national Democratic Party will deliver the GOP candidate a win.
“How do you spell ‘Obama’? How do you spell ‘ObamaCare’? How do you spell, ‘our decline in image for the United States throughout the world’? How do you spell ‘Harry Reid’?” he said, when asked what he saw as the GOP’s winning argument in the race.
Weiland has, however, distanced himself from Obama on core issues, ranging from possible U.S. military intervention in Syria to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent actions on ethanol. His adviser Mike Lux said calling his campaign “progressive” would be inaccurate.
“I think he’s running a populist campaign, and I think that a populist campaign has won most South Dakota senate elections in the last few years for Democrats. It’s not a conventional progressive campaign at all,” Lux said.
Lux said Weiland is framing his push for a public option as essentially support for allowing the public to buy into Medicare, which is popular with seniors, and that his opposition to Keystone XL is appealing to farmers and ranchers who know it could hurt their water supply.
Democrats say they’re further heartened by the contours of the GOP primary. They believe prevailing conservative discontent with Rounds, the establishment pick, as well as investigations into potential misconduct involving the state development office during Rounds’ administration, could cripple him for the general.
Lawrence argued there’s no direct connection between Rounds and the alleged misconduct: “There’s smoke but there’s no fire. It will not singe Mike Rounds.”
That could change, however, if national Democrats pour money into advertising pushing the issue — and in a state as cheap as South Dakota, a small investment goes a long way.
They also believe the entry of Pressler as an independent candidate could split off votes from the GOP nominee and deliver Weiland a win, if the race tightens.
Lawrence predicted that Pressler could draw 8 percent of the vote but that Rounds — whom the state party has not officially endorsed, but Lawrence and many others see as the clear front-runner — will be too strong to overcome.
“Mike Rounds is so popular and the Democratic candidate is so comparatively weak that Larry Pressler would have to have an incredible amount of support” to leave an opening for Weiland, he said.
Democrats insist they’ve budgeted the money they’ll need to defend the seat and say the expanding map won’t draw resources away. But it remains unclear whether Weiland can tighten the race enough for it to become a worthwhile investment, and Lux admitted the money issue is a big one for the candidate.
“There’s no doubt [fundraising’s] going to be our biggest challenge,” Lux told The Hill. “When you’re running a race that is going after big money, you don’t tend to raise as much money. It’s sort of the nature of the campaign.”
But Steve Jarding, a former Daschle campaign strategist, said Weiland, who’s struggled in fudraising, wouldn’t need to match Rounds dollar-for-dollar to be competitive.
“If Rounds raises $9 million, beating him with $2 million would be really hard. Could he beat him with $3 million? Yeah, probably. It’s so cheap there that for $3-4 million total from all candidates combined you could buy up every ad in the state,” he said.
Jarding said the race could ultimately come down to whether national Democrats invest there.
“Would you bet on the race today? No, probably not,” he said. “But if [Democrats] drop in some money, then I would say all bets are off.”