2014 Midterms: Key Issues in the South Dakota Senate Race

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, we’ve asked experts from the ten states with competitive Senate races to answer six questions in a spotlight on each race, providing perspective on the dynamics in the state as we head toward Election Day. In this post, Jon Schaff looks at the key issues in the South Dakota Senate race, an interesting three-way race between Former Governor Mike Rounds (R), Democrat Rick Weiland, and Former Republican US Senator-turned Independent Larry Pressler.

1. What have been the three key issues in this year’s Senate race?

The South Dakota Senate race has been dominated by a scandal involving a federal visa program as administered under former governor Mike Rounds, now Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. While Rounds does not appear to be directly implicated in the scandal, simply having it happen under his watch has earned him considerable negative press. This negative press has been encouraged by Democratic nominee Rick Weiland.

To a lesser extent health care and the Keystone pipeline, planned to cross part of South Dakota, have played roles in the race. Recently the Rounds campaign has tried to raise the profile of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and the Keystone pipeline, sensing the Weiland and independent candidate, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, are weak on these issues in a strongly Republican state.

2. How have the candidates handled these issues and which candidate has been the strongest on those issues?

Rounds has suffered mightily from the Weiland camp’s successful pushing of the visa scandal, to the extent that coverage of all other issues has been nearly non-existent. Rounds, until recent days, has tried to stay meticulously positive, but this has allowed him to be defined by Weiland.  Weiland has pushed a campaign of “taking back” the government from big money and relentlessly pounding Rounds on the visa scandal. It is safe to say Weiland has successfully localized the race as a referendum on Mike Rounds and the visa scandal.

3. Have any other issues resonated specifically with key demographic groups or interests and what are the implications for the race?

South Dakota has an elderly population. Thus discussion on Social Security and Medicare has played some role in the campaign. Rick Weiland has suggested expanding Medicare to include more individuals as part of a plan to expand access to health care. The Rounds camp has accused Weiland of putting the solvency of Medicare at risk. Weiland and independent candidate Larry Pressler have suggested lifting the cap on Social Security taxation in effort to increase that program’s solvency. Rounds has opposed this as a significant tax increase. Instead he favors raising the retirement age and allowing for other investment strategies for Social Security, falling short of advocating private accounts.

South Dakota is a strong gun rights state and recently Mike Rounds has tried to highlight his National Rifle Association endorsement and the less “gun-friendly” beliefs of Weiland and Pressler.

4. How have outside surrogates, SuperPACs, or other outside spending played a role in the race?

Ironically, while Rick Weiland has made opposition to “big money” a cornerstone of his campaign, he is the biggest recipient of outside help in the campaign. For example, the MayDay PAC and Every Voice Action have each spent about $500,000 on behalf of Weiland. Every Voice Action has pledged to spend $1 million total in support of Weiland. It is worth noting that South Dakota is a relatively cheap media market, so that money goes further than it would in most states. Both Rounds and Weiland have received approximately $1 million from national party sources. Much of this outside money has gone into negative ads. Rounds has benefited from substantial money from the American Chemistry Council.

5. Midterms are often characterized by low turnout. What are your expectations about voter apathy/engagement in this race?

On the whole, South Dakota has relatively high voter turnout. This Senate race may cause turnout to be a roughly at mid-term norms. In a Republican dominated state in what looks to be a Republican year, no other race in the state is competitive. Without the Senate race turning competitive, turnout likely would have been slightly down.

Two things to look for in this race are turnout on the Indian reservations and in the Rapid City area. First, the Indian reservations are strong Democratic strongholds, but getting that vote out often proves troublesome. In 2002 turnout on the reservations provided the margin of victory for Sen. Tim Johnson over then-congressman John Thune. Second, Republicans hold a large advantage in what is called “West River” South Dakota, the area west of the Missouri River. Rapid City is the largest city in this half of the state. When Republicans run into trouble in the state it is often because the “West River” vote doesn’t turnout in high enough numbers.

An advantage that Mike Rounds has is that as the better-funded candidate with a much stronger state party operation (the Democratic Party in South Dakota is quite weak) he can expect a better get-out-the-vote operation.

6. National media attention to this Senate race has been substantial. What important aspects have the media overlooked that may surprise outside observers on Election Day?

If Mike Rounds proves unsuccessful, observers might be surprised by the extent to which Rounds’ hesitancy to go negative may have cost him the election. Rounds has been hit with enormous negative publicity both from the media and the Weiland camp. Rounds until very recently refused to run negative ads. Thus the visa scandal has essentially defined the campaign with the Rounds campaign doing little to refocus the election to his strengths, namely the fact that his views are more in harmony with the typical South Dakota voter, while the progressive Weiland and a newly progressive Larry Pressler have policy views largely out of step with the South Dakota electorate. In this sense Rounds has let a race he should be dominating get away from him. At this point Rounds benefits from having a split “anti-Rounds” vote between Weiland and Pressler. That may be what saves him.

Relatedly, outsiders may be surprised that in essence issues have played almost no role in this campaign. The visa scandal has dominated Senate race coverage. Unlike some other states, national issues and President Obama have played very little role in this campaign. Issues such as the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, jobs, and war in the Middle East have hardly been covered. Only belatedly has Mike Rounds attempted to change the subject back to these issues. Rounds may use televised debates to change the tenor of the campaign (candidates have already debated twice in non-televised forums, and two televised debates are upcoming as of this writing).