South Dakota shakes up Senate map

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An improbable opportunity for Democrats in South Dakota has shaken up the Senate map.

Thanks to what local Republicans are privately criticizing as a lackluster, play-it-safe campaign, former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is looking surprisingly weak in the three-way race in the deep red state. 

Now, after a series of polls showing the GOP nominee stalled, national Democrats are finally putting $1 million in the race trying to move the tide further. Even though Democrats are saddled with a weak nominee of their own, Republicans will likely have to parry the new influx of cash with spending and staff of their own.

The renewed interest in South Dakota comes as Republicans are trying to fix another headache in a red state. Incumbent Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election More Senate Republicans pressure Treasury over debt-equity rules GOP leaders advise members to proceed with caution on Trump MORE (R-Kan.) is in a tight race against his own independent challenger, draining precious time and resources for another seat that should be safe.

The two red states, which Republicans weren't expecting to have to actively protect, are again on the map for Democrats. 

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said it's clear his GOP counterparts at the National Republican Senatorial Committee are overwhelmed. 

"There are any number of Republican Senate candidates running bad campaigns right now, and I'm sure the NRSC has their hands full," he said.

The news isn’t all bad for the GOP in their quest to take back the Senate. Democrats are trailing in the polls in a number of races, and both the national political atmosphere and historical trends are working against them in their battle to hold on to their six-seat majority.

NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring said the South Dakota spending showed “desperation" on the part of Democrats.

“Just last week the DSCC said that their ‘internal polls’ showed they could not win in South Dakota, but now they’re throwing money in the race? It’s a sign of desperation and suggests that other states they need to win are slipping away. They’re flailing,” he said.

And while South Dakota offers them a much-needed opportunity for offense, they have no clear path to victory just yet. National Democrats had, in fact, written off their candidate, former Senate aide Rick Weiland, declaring him too liberal for the state.

His presence in the race, after national Democrats failed to recruit a stronger challenger, sparked the ire of Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidObama in Nevada: 'Heck no' to Trump, Joe Heck Dems double down on Nevada Latino vote Heck's rejection of Trump imperils Nevada Senate race MORE (D-Nev.) and caused a public spat between Reid and Tom Daschle, his former Senate colleague and onetime Democratic leader, and Weiland's former boss.

But Weiland's campaign adviser Steve Jarding told The Hill shortly after reading the news of the DSCC's entry into the race that he wasn't surprised.

"I am not shocked by it — you just knew it had to come, everything else had kind of come together," he said.

He pointed to multiple recent polls that showed Rounds losing support and Weiland holding steady. The most recent, out Wednesday, gave Rounds 35 percent support to Weiland’s 28 percent support among likely voters.

That same poll, however, underscored the dilemma Democrats face in South Dakota and why spending on the race by national Democrats could be a gamble: Independent Larry Pressler — a former GOP senator — is surging, drawing more support than Weiland at 32 percent, who could act as a spoiler.

Pressler won't say who he'll caucus with — he told The Hill during an interview in Washington on Wednesday, before the news of the DSCC's entry into the race broke, that he’ll back whichever party “can help me secure roll call votes" on issues that “matter” to him. He represented the state in Congress as a Republican for more than 20 years, first in the House and then the Senate, but backed President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and he has tacked to the left on certain issues, like gay marriage.

Reached again after the news broke, however, the quixotic candidate sees it as bad news for him.

"That means Weiland is going to start attacking me," he told The Hill over the phone, while waiting for his plane back to South Dakota to depart.

Sounding genuinely surprised and dismayed, Pressler added: "In this whole war, I have no guns. I have no money to respond. I'm like a rabbit watching hunters with shotguns coming up the hill."

Pressler has fared even worse than Weiland in fundraising, bringing in just over $107,000 through the second quarter, and said Wednesday he’s taken out a $100,000 bank loan and contributed another $100,000 of his own money to his campaign. 

But he also reiterated there’s no way he'll drop out, ruling a scenario similar to Kansas when the Democratic nominee withdrew under pressure.

The DSCC’s presence in the race could, in fact, be a boon for Pressler. In a state that went for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by nearly 20 points last cycle, a stamp of approval from the national Democratic brand — and by extension, the president — could be toxic for a candidate.

Jarding says Weiland has "pretty much run an independent campaign," and he's confident that the DSCC's move won't impact his appeal.

Democrats privately admit they'd be satisfied with either Pressler or Weiland winning in November, as they believe either one would be a better vote on crucial issues than Rounds.

And if nothing else, their entry into the race will cause Republicans to spend to save a seat they had largely considered a done deal.

South Dakota GOP spokesman Dick Wadhams dismissed the DSCC's entry into the race as "another day, another million dollars of character assassination in South Dakota."

Democrats are expected to target Rounds for any ties he has to the scandal surrounding the state's EB-5 visa program, which traded visas to foreign investors willing to commit at least half a million dollars in funds to local projects.

Democrats have accused Rounds of mismanagement of the program during his time as governor, and it is featured prominently in attack ads from both Weiland and outside groups backing him. 

Wadhams said he feels Rounds has answered those attacks adequately — but nudged outside GOP groups to help him defend himself.

"Rounds has never been involved in a campaign where he had to go negative or provide a clear contrast with his opponents," one South Dakota Republican operative said.

The operative said the former governor — against the recommendation of his advisers and local party figures — "has not allowed the campaign to engage in any contrast."

Concerns that Rounds might let the race slip away by refusing to draw that contrast "was certainly in the back of many minds," the operative added — "but that's about to change."

Indeed, within an hour of the news breaking, Rounds campaign manager Rob Skjonsberg hit back.

“Which Obama supporter is the DSCC supporting? Weiland or Pressler? Both support Obama, Obamacare, higher taxes and more gun restrictions. It’s a two for one deal!” he said in an email.

It was a common line of attack, similar to what Republicans have lobbed against Roberts’ independent challenger. 

But in a year so uncommon that Kansas and South Dakota could prove to be Democrats' saving grace, it’s unclear whether the common will still work.