Spirited South Dakota Senate race revs up on Washington's doorstep

Former Gov. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Sioux Falls physician Annette Bosworth (R) brought South Dakota's Senate race to Washington's doorsteps this week, hustling for support among conservative groups and national party organizers. 

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While Rounds pounded the pavement looking for D.C. donors, Bosworth met with both establishment actors and conservative groups. 

In an interview with The Hill, Bosworth said she got warm receptions in a meeting with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and at a weekly breakfast hosted by Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist. 

Rounds, a well-known former governor considered an early favorite for the GOP nomination, faces three conservative challengers in the primary. The GOP sees South Dakota as a prime pickup opportunity in 2014 following Sen. Tim Johnson's (D) decision to retire. 

Rounds has already drawn favorable reviews from NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), who in June said he had "great confidence and faith" in the ex-governor and called him an "outstanding candidate."

A Bosworth aide, Nate Johnson, told The Hill that the NRSC's political director, Ward Baker, gave Bosworth advice on how to "pick up steam" in the race during their Wednesday meeting.

Bosworth said she had met with the NRSC in June, before she declared her candidacy, and found a much colder reception.

"The first time they were like, 'We have this one covered; we've got a Republican. What are you doing? Here's our tact to not let you win.' I wasn't a candidate yet, so I suppose it was legal for them to say all of that," she said.

She said this time, "They did have a transition of heart throughout."

According to Johnson, the NRSC reached out to Bosworth's campaign to set up a meeting with Baker and his deputy, Chelsea Hawker, when the candidate arrived in Washington.

Johnson said "they were very impressed" after seeing a Tuesday morning appearance Bosworth made on Fox and Friends and an ad she put out last month.

"So Ward Baker basically said, 'Look, I like you. You're attractive. You're smart. We just need to know you're picking up steam.' And he proceeded to sort of advise her on how to do that," Johnson said.

NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring said "it was a very standard, cordial meeting with the candidate."

"We reach out to any candidate we know is running for Senate. We've met with multiple candidates. Anybody who's running, we've made it a point to try to meet with. We've talked to them about where they see the race going, the dynamics in the state," Dayspring said.

"We feel it's very productive to have those conversations with every candidate. It doesn't mean we expressed an interest in backing her. It was nothing more, nothing less."

The NRSC also said that no one at the committee had met with Bosworth in June.

Dayspring noted that Rounds was the only South Dakota candidate Baker mentioned at two separate presentations on the Senate landscape to GOP donors and lobbyists this week.

He said the committee has no plans to endorse in the South Dakota Senate primary.

Johnson later clarified that the NRSC had not indicated it was backing Bosworth in the primary.

"I want to make sure that you don't think that we conveyed or attempted to convey or hinted that the NRSC or Ward Baker endorsed Annette Bosworth — or that they gave us the indication they had any problem with Mike Rounds," Johnson told The Hill.

Bosworth, after hearing the NRSC's account of the meeting, said it was an "engaged and delightful meeting."

"I'm a physician. I study human behavior; I know about body language. It was an incredibly present meeting where, I think it was attractive to see another candidate in the race," she said.

She also criticized the committee for failing to be receptive to women and minority candidates.

"The NRSC wants to say that they welcome minorities and women to run for office. But when [they] do, the NRSC makes sure that it is well-known that they support the 'incumbent' who is the prototype polished career politician clearly representing the establishment," she later added in an email to The Hill.

During her nearly weeklong visit to D.C., Bosworth also met with Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), who decided against launching a conservative challenge to Rounds in the Senate race, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). Bosworth said she spoke to both lawmakers about the unique challenges women face running for Congress.

Bosworth said she didn't know how much money she had raised for the third quarter and hadn't focused on fundraising in the initial stages of her campaign.

She said experts had proposed taking the "Kristi Noem pathway" to victory, and said Noem backed that up.

"She affirmed that, saying, 'There's some really good guidance counselors out there that will show you how to do this. What you need to worry about is that you're doing this for the right reasons, is that you've got the South Dakota hearts and minds at the forefront, and that we need more South Dakota pioneers — people who have done something — to represent who South Dakota is,'" she said.

Bosworth also met with the Club for Growth, a national anti-abortion rights group and attended a number of conservative breakfasts.

Rounds said he is receiving encouragement from incumbent lawmakers, and has met with nearly a dozen Republican senators during his visits to Washington, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP Sens. Moran, John Thune (S.D), John Hoeven (N.D.), Rob Portman (Ohio), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Jim Risch (Iowa), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).

Rounds touted a successful third-quarter fundraising haul that saw him again top $600,000, a respectable sum for a candidate in South Dakota a year out from the race. He did say he's had some trouble drawing funds from D.C.-based PACs.

"Across the country, we've met our [fundraising] goals, but in Washington, we've not met the goals that we wanted to meet. And you know the PACs have just said, flat out, we’re not getting money in, or you don’t need it,” Rounds said.