Less than a month after the dead-man-walking candidacies of Richard Mourdock and a now infamous Missourian culminated in predictable blowouts, a governor emeritus of South Dakota announced his own bid for the Senate in the forthcoming 2014 midterms. With Tim Johnson, a current occupant of the state's DC delegation, expected to signal his retirement by the end of the spring, few would deny the race presents a prime pick-up opportunity for the recently luckless NRSC. And although the Mount Rushmore municipality boasts impressive benches of heavyweights from both sides of the party divide, the affable Marion Michael Rounds cuts a formidable profile on paper when one handicaps the contest. After launching a stunning upset against opponents who outspent him ten to one in what initially appeared to be a quixotic 2002 run for 119 North Washington Avenue, the Huron native amassed stratospheric approval ratings for most of the following eight years. A USA Survey poll near the end of his first term showed him to be one of the five most popular executive officials in America, and such glowing numbers have remained more or less consistent since he exited office in 2011. Others often mentioned as potential challengers for the imminent vacancy include Democrats Brendan Johnson, a U.S. Attorney appointed by President Obama and the exiting Senator's second son, as well as the scion of another regional dynasty, former Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. With the election expected to be one of the most closely fought and expensive of those on the calendar for next November, primaries will offer a momentous decision. In a battleground that could determine control of Capitol Hill's upper chamber, an array of communities — including the Indian tribes of the state, as well as Dakota women of every heritage — should hope they have the opportunity to reject the Rounds campaign and support another possible Republican nominee, Congresswoman Kristi Noem. Because although there is much to like in the initially conciliatory rhetoric deployed by the former governor as he makes his opening media tour, a cursory glance at the cornerstone legislation and defining controversies of his administration reveals a troubling history of parliamentary misogyny and philosophical tone-deafness that will inevitably prove deleterious to both the GOP and the public at large.
To the crowd of 100 that watched him toss his proverbial hat into the ring, the insurance firm partner declared, "We need to become a country of cooperation instead of confrontation," and struck a similar tone of moderation in a March 20 interview with Politico. Proudly touting his aversion to negative advertising, Rounds conceded that, "Roe v. Wade is the law of the land," when asked about his position on abortion. "We live within the decision, but we also test to find out how far the decision can go," he continued.
What a difference seven years and shifts in the national political climate make. On March 6, 2006, Rounds signed H. B. 1215, otherwise known as the Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act, into law after it was passed by the local legislature the previous month. The proposal effectively prohibited all abortions in the state, even in instances of rape and incest. The statute permitted exceptions to save the life of the mother, provided physicians also made "reasonable efforts" to preserve the health of the child. This bold charge in the culture wars generated repercussions both foreseeable and unexpected. Alluding to the sovereignty of indigenous land, Cecilia Fire Thunder, the first female president of the Oglala Sioux, declared her intent to create a Planned Parenthood clinic on her reservation. In short order, the tribal council voted to impeach her for acting unilaterally and without gaining formal consensus. By May, South Dakota Healthy Families had mounted a successful petition drive to win a ballot measure for repeal. The following autumn, 56% of the electorate expressed their opposition to the ban and the brief but riveting saga came to an end.
Although Rounds eventually rebounded from a dip in polling and even trounced his foes for reelection on the same day as the referendum, there is no doubt that the episode will become an albatross around his neck in the media and on the stump given the ripple-effect shellacking that conservatives suffered as fallout from the “legitimate rape” and “God’s will” transgressions. Not only did he undertake one of the most brazenly misguided and fruitless social pipe dreams in four decades, but he did so with the full-throated support one Bill M. Napoli, a state Senator from Rapid City, who explained that the 1215 provision did not include allowances for sexual violence because, "if it was a case of 'simple rape,' there should be no thoughts of ending the pregnancy." In an interview with Fred de Sam Lazaro of PBS three days before Rounds put his John Hancock on the bill, Napoli expounded on these sentiments by detailing what he considered an acceptable situation in which a pregnancy could be terminated after forced intercourse: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.”
It doesn't get any more slam-dunk than such disturbingly vibrant reveries when it comes to corroborating War on Women accusations. Intellectual independents focused on fiscal responsibility and a common-sense solution to the gridlock in Washington will only be courting disappointment if they back Rounds. Additionally, Natives will remember that he adopted a leisurely pace in delivering aide to the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations after particularly destructive ice storms in December 2009.
As a mother, rancher, and small business owner who has proven to be a prominent advocate for economic development in Indian country, Congresswoman Noem is the most viable substitute for Rounds on the right. A champion of House Resolution 2355, which reaffirms the self-autonomy of businesses on tribal territories outside the jurisdictional scope of the National Labor Relations Board, she has also suggested the establishment of a permanent Office of Tribal Relations in the Department of Agriculture. Earlier this month, she offered an amendment to the SKILLS Act guaranteeing funding for Native American workforce grants that won passage. In the 2012 iteration of VAWA, she introduced language to ensure that vulnerable indigenous women could petition a federal court either individually or through their respective nations for restraining orders.
Because the victor of the Republican primary next summer will likely stand auspicious odds at flipping the seat, South Dakotans and constituencies across the country need Noem—a demonstrated pragmatist—in the hunt. No one can afford the alternative.
Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Skin-walking, his first book of poetry, will be published in October.