Conservatives eye challengers to former Gov. Mike Rounds in SD Senate race

South Dakota state Rep. Stace Nelson (R) met with a handful of national conservative groups last week in Washington — an indication they continue to search for a challenger to former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) in the state’s open Senate race.

The Republican primary field is already wide, and a bruising contest could jeopardize a pickup that is crucial to GOP efforts to take back the Senate in 2014.

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Nelson met with Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) office, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth.

“To say things went well is an understatement,” Nelson told The Hill.

Nelson called himself “definitely the type of candidate they’d like to see, a Christian conservative Republican, in that order.”

Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D) retirement will leave the seat open.

Former congressional staffer Rick Weiland, a relative unknown, is seeking the Democratic nomination in the deep-red state.

Conservative groups have been critical of Rounds from the start of his Senate campaign.

They are frustrated with his refusal to sign a no-new-taxes pledge and believe his record as governor was too liberal, charging he expanded the state government and supported stimulus spending.

Nelson contends Rounds would bring “more of the same problems that we’ve had for too long.” He said voters are tired of “career politicians that mouth the words and play the chameleon part of claiming they’re conservatives but not acting like it.”

Rounds, for his part, told The Hill he’s not concerned with the other candidates.

“We run our own race. I don’t pay a lot of attention to what my opponents are doing,” he said on Tuesday.

“In South Dakota, everyone kind of knows me. They know that I’m consistent. The one thing that I get in visiting with people is they say, ‘Please don’t change. Please run the same campaign you’ve always run. Be yourself.”

Opponents are watching Rounds’s third-quarter fundraising haul for a sign of weakness.

He rebounded from a difficult first quarter to raise more than $600,000 in his second quarter, a “respectable” sum for South Dakota, he said.

While multiple conservative groups confirmed they’ve met with both Nelson and the other most prominent conservative challenger in the race, state Sen. Larry Rhoden, representatives privately admitted they’re not thrilled with either candidate.

“Stace probably shares our views, but [it’s] hard to see him being a credible candidate at this point,” one adviser to a national conservative group told The Hill.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at South Dakota’s Northern State University, said Nelson might be prone to inflammatory outbursts that can lose winnable Senate seats for the GOP.

“Stace Nelson is more of a bomb thrower. He found himself very much at odds with party leadership in the state legislature,” Schaff said.

“His chance of saying something offensive to a majority of voters and ending up blowing what should be a Republican win is much higher than a lot of these candidates.”

There’s one other Republican in the race, physician Annette Bosworth. A fifth, former state Rep. Mark Venner, could enter soon.



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