It’s suddenly raining money in the South Dakota election for the U.S. Senate that Republicans thought they had in the bag. Democrats had also assumed that the seat being vacated by Tim Johnson would go Republican and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pretty well closed the establishment money faucet on Democratic nominee Rick Weiland when Reid’s candidate, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, did not get the nomination.
The heir-apparent to Tim Johnson’s seat was former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who promptly took advantage of his front-runner status by refusing to debate Weiland or the two independents in the race, Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie. Rounds, however, has been dogged by a scandal over the EB-5 immigration program that resulted in a lot of public money disappearing and the suicide of the Rounds appointee at the center of the thievery, Richard Benda, just ahead of a criminal indictment.
The EB-5 scandal kept Rounds from putting the race away, according to local tracking polls, which have showed not a runaway for Rounds but a three-way horse race among Rounds, Weiland, and independent (and former GOP Senator) Pressler. There is no runoff, so no majority is required to win and no majority is expected.
National eyes and national money have focused on the Indian country state of South Dakota because the expected outcome of next month’s elections had been a shift from Democratic control to Republican, handing Harry Reid’s job to Republican Mitch McConnell. The party in the White House always loses mid-term elections and President Obama’s approval numbers are dismal, so the GOP picking up six seats to take control looked like a cakewalk.
The arithmetic leading to the GOP cakewalk assumed several safe Republican seats would stay red—McConnell’s in Kentucky, solid red Kansas and Georgia. All three of those states are in play and now so is South Dakota, thought by the punditry to be a sure thing GOP pickup with Johnson retiring in a state that voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 18 points.
Events conspired against the Republicans one after another, beginning with the stubborn refusal of the EB-5 scandal to go away quietly. Mike Rounds styles himself a different kind of politician because he will not run negative ads against his opponents, and most voters will claim they like that. However, he has also been different in his refusal to debate.
Refusing to face his opponents when he is surrounded by a scandal involving public funds and the suicide of one of his appointees leads to a suspicion that he cannot explain himself because most innocent people would be itching to set the record straight.
Rounds is also suffering among a substantial Indian population because of his perceived reluctance to ask for the Indian vote. This perception was not helped when Rounds pulled a no-show at a debate put on by the United Tribes Technical College and Native Sun News. To Rounds, it was just another of many refusals to debate. To many Indians, it was a snub.
The race got further complicated when Larry Pressler jumped in as an independent. The former GOP senator has plenty of name recognition from his previous service. When he was elected in 1979, Pressler was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate. He also distinguished himself for some people during the ABSCAM scandal. Some pols in Congress were mealy-mouthed enough to escape indictment but Pressler unequivocally declared to the undercover FBI agents that he would not be bribed and actually reported the attempted bribery to law enforcement.
Since his glory days, Pressler came to the conclusion that the Republican Party has left him by dashing to the far right of every issue. The bad rap on Pressler in red state South Dakota is that he endorsed President Obama both times. This leads Democrats to believe that, if elected, he would probably caucus with them, and it is hard to picture him on the same side with people like Ted Cruz.
The other independent candidate, Gordon Howie, is not a player except his Tea Party tendencies will siphon a few votes from Rounds’ right flank, leaving Pressler to pull GOP votes from the left of Rounds and the honesty vote, if there is one, both because the EB-5 scandal casts doubt on Rounds’ probity and because the memory of Pressler’s conduct in ABSCAM establishes his.
Pressler’s ability to suck up about a third of the political oxygen put the race within reach for Democrat Rick Weiland, since Harry Reid cannot continue to withhold support when Weiland has a chance of winning and therefore being a key to Reid remaining as Majority Leader. When the race began to appear winnable, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee belatedly put a million dollars into South Dakota, a sum that will go far in that state’s low dollar media market. Politico reported on October 10 that the National Republican Senatorial Committee made an ad buy of $750,000 in South Dakota and promised more to come. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association with a track record of fighting environmental regulations, bought $205,000 worth of media for Rounds.
There is one more national issue in the South Dakota election besides who shall control the senate, and that is campaign finance reform. Two lines of cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, characterized as “corporate personhood” and “one dollar-one vote,” have changed the face of politics so as to require members of Congress who are not independently wealthy and even some who are to spend more time raising money than they spend doing the people’s work.
Obsession with political fundraising is not a character flaw so much as a requirement to hold office when corporations are equal to human beings in having the right to spend money on candidates and any regulation of political spending is considered to be a regulation of speech banned by the First Amendment.
Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig wrote a book about this brave new political world, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. One of the ideas Lessig has brought to fruition is Mayday PAC, a crowdsourced SuperPAC dedicated to wiping SuperPACs off the political map by funding candidates pledged to changing the system. Rick Weiland, the Democrat in the South Dakota race, has promised that his first bill will be a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that made corporate people equal to human people in funding elections.
Mayday PAC has put another million dollars into South Dakota media, fighting fire with fire. Lessig, who was born in Rapid City, suggested a slogan for a SuperPAC dedicated to killing SuperPACs: “Embrace the irony.”
Because campaign finance reform has become a major issue, and because the outcome may determine which party controls the senate, national eyes are on the South Dakota senate race. Indians, one percent or less of the national population, are about nine percent in South Dakota, a potent bloc if they voted as a bloc. Because of the peculiar twists and turns in this race, Indian voters could very well decide which party will control the U.S. Senate and therefore whether Barack Obama has a chance to get anything done in his last two years. The candidate who learns best how to ask Indians for their votes could be the winner.