It’s no surprise that former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, who won his two gubernatorial contests by massive margins in 2002 and 2006, is flummoxed, as he watches his once-certain bid in his state’s open Senate contest suddenly endangered. Today, Rounds faces a three-way dogfight for a seat Republicans had long ago notched in the “gain” column.
Walking out of a candidate forum Monday, Rounds pretended that the closeness of the race wasn’t surprising, saying South Dakota was a “purple state.” In reality, Mitt Romney won the state by 18 points in 2012; to call the state “purple” would stretch the definition beyond its breaking point. Indeed, not too long ago, there wasn’t any race to speak of. In August, a CBS/NYT/YouGov poll had Rounds leading Democrat Rick Weiland 43 percent to 29 percent, with independent former Sen. Larry Pressler bringing up the rear with 6 percent.
So why the sudden contest, when the popular former governor should be gliding easily into the Senate? Scandal is a big part of the story. Rounds has been caught up in his administration’s stewardship of the EB-5 visa program — the program where immigrants can buy American residency by investing $500,000 in U.S. projects — and the resulting mess has led to the suicide of a Cabinet member facing indictment, as well as a slew of bankruptcies, lawsuits and investigations.
Pressler, a former Republican, appears to have benefited most, despite having endorsed President Obama the last two elections and having moved to the left. He is also benefiting from some support from Democrats, who might be motivated by nostalgia or the sense that he’s a stronger bet to beat Rounds.
Senate Democrats announced last week they were engaging in the race, reserving $1 million of TV ad time in this dirt-cheap media state. Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC committed another million. Republicans shrugged off the sudden outside interest, telling the Washington Examiner that their internals continued to give Rounds an 11- to 14-point lead. Then, they proved how not worried they were by announcing a $750,000 ad buy on Monday.
This all follows Republican efforts to rescue races in Georgia and Kansas. It was just September when National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Rob Portman said his party had no plans to spend money in Kansas, Georgia or Kentucky. Yet Republicans announced a few days ago they were committing $1.45 million to Georgia, where their nominee, David Perdue, is suffering from revelations that his entire business career has focused on outsourcing jobs overseas. He even told a reporter that he was “proud” of his outsourcing. In Kansas, Charles and David Koch’s Freedom Partners committed $1.2 million to try and rescue Virginia resident and supposed Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, as he continues to face deficits in public polling. And millions of outside dollars are continuing to pour in on both sides of the Kentucky Senate race.
Senate Republicans still hold strong advantages this cycle, from a favorable map to expected decreased Democratic base voter turnout to the president’s unpopularity. But the uncertainty in South Dakota, Kansas and Georgia proves that, regardless of the narrative, 2014 isn’t shaping up as a wave year.
Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.