South Dakota Independent: I'd be a 'friend of Obama' in the Senate

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An underfunded independent from South Dakota has turned the Senate race there upside-down, giving Democrats a renewed hope of holding the seat — or at least preventing a Republican pickup.

But while former Sen. Larry Pressler, who served nearly a quarter century in Congress as a Republican, won't say who he'd caucus with, he told The Hill Wednesday that, if elected, he'd be a "friend of Obama" in the Senate.

"I don't regret those votes, 'cause on that day, that's how I felt," he said of voting for Obama twice, a detail used by Republicans as evidence Pressler is now a closet Democrat.

He said the first time around, he supported Obama's budget plan, which was similar to the "Clinton-Gingrich balanced-budget plan," which Pressler says he sees as a model for the nation. And the second time, Pressler said he supported the president because he spoke out on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, something Pressler himself is afflicted with from his combat experience in the Vietnam War.

In addition to his votes with the president, Pressler says he publicly apologized when the South Dakota Republican Party adopted a plank in its platform calling for the impeachment of the president over the Affordable Care Act, among other things, a law that he says South Dakota "needs."

"I disagree with Obama on many many things. I am not an Obama supporter, so to speak, but I am on the Affordable Care Act," he said.

But he still had criticism for the president.

"I think Barack ObamaBarack ObamaLow income mothers need policy agenda to overcome healthcare obstacles WikiLeaks releases messages from Obama Obama jabs Samsung over phones that catch fire MORE has struggled with [the presidency]," he said. "He's done some very good things, but he's done a lot of things that I don't agree with, especially in the area of the deficit."

His anti-deficit, pro-balanced-budget and pro-ObamaCare positions have made Pressler both a difficult candidate to pigeonhole and the potential spoiler for Republicans in the South Dakota Senate race.

A poll out this week showed him surging in the race — despite only having raised about $107,000 through the second quarter of the year, and having spent even less — narrowing Republican Mike Rounds' lead to just three points. He's more competitive in the four-way race than Democrat Rick Weiland, and in a head-to-head matchup with Rounds, Pressler leads him by 15 points.


At issue for Rounds is the scandal surrounding the state’s visas-for-investments program, which Democrats believe was misused and mismanaged by the Republican during his time as governor. He’s denied any wrongdoing, but polling indicates voters still want better answers from him.

Pressler compared the issue to the scandal that ultimately prompted President Nixon’s resignation.

“It may be like Watergate ... in that the actual things that are done wrong are fairly small, but the suppression of an investigation — everything has been pushed back beyond the election. And I think the public feels that they don’t know and Governor Rounds has not told us, so there is a great question mark about that,” he said.

Rounds's unexpected weakness in such a deep-red state prompted national Democrats on Wednesday to pledge $1 million to defeat him. But their investment could ultimately have the effect of electing Pressler over their party's own candidate — and yet Pressler stubbornly refuses to say who he'll caucus with.

He told The Hill not to assume he'll caucus with the majority party. Rather, he plans to caucus "with whichever party will give me votes on certain issues."

Pressler named increasing the Social Security cost-of-living-adjustment, closing "obsolete overseas bases" and raising the gas tax as examples. He also said he supports the immigration reform proposal introduced under and supported by President George W. Bush, which would've established legal status and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S., and described what he referred to as the "Pressler Containment Policy" on national security — insisting while we need to "protect ourselves," the U.S. should not act as a global police force and "we need to get out of this continuous war that we're in."

"I've seen us waste our blood and treasure in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now we're doing the same with [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]," said Pressler. 

And he also said he was in favor of raising revenues by eliminating certain tax deductions and raising taxes on the wealthy, to ensure America can "meet [its] responsibilities.”

"We're a big, rich country and we don't need to gouge Social Security, we don't need to gouge education, we don't need to close the EPA. We have to meet our responsibilities here at home," he said.

While many of his positions will give Republicans ammunition to paint him as a liberal Democrat, Pressler says he doesn't believe he's changed since he was a Republican.

"I'm the same as I always was. I think my party has moved far to the right," he said.

In any case, Pressler, who’s pledged only to serve one term if elected, believes that his ability to hold out on his party allegiance may be the best reason South Dakotans have to vote for him. 

He imagined a Senate, next year, with four independents — Angus KingAngus KingBetter child care for stronger families Wells CEO Stumpf resigns from Fed advisory panel Pentagon chief: 9/11 bill could be used against US troops MORE of Maine, Bernie SandersBernie SandersMichelle Obama: Trump 'humiliates women as if we’re objects' Overnight Healthcare: Obama confronts health law's 'growing pains' | Sanders slams leukemia drug price hike WikiLeaks: Advisers were nervous about Clinton touting her support for Israel MORE of Vermont, himself and Greg Orman, the independent running neck and neck with 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) in Kansas — who could make the core of a 20-senator "centrist caucus" that could end partisan disputes and get things done.

"I feel I could be a very powerful voice for South Dakota because we will probably have a very closely divided Senate, and I think that the independents will have a great deal of power," he said.

Orman has suggested he may change parties depending on which would be better for Kansas, but Pressler cautioned against that.

"I mean it's like a suitor. You can't be too fickle," he said. "An independent can also overplay his or her hand."

Despite his strong showing in the polls, Pressler has few resources to get out his message and fight back against what he believes are the inevitable attacks that will come. He admits he'll likely be his own biggest contributor, and is taking out a $100,000 bank loan and contributing another $100,00 of his own money to his campaign. He currently has just one paid staffer, but plans to add two part-time staffers for the final month.

But the lack of funds, he says, is a small price to pay for his ideological freedom.

"Both Governor Rounds and Mr. Weiland are good guys, but either one of them is going to go back into Congress cloaked in special interest money, and in the bondage of one caucus or the other," he said.