For Democrats, the Race That Got Away

Thanks to Tom Daschle and a vocal liberal base, Democrats weren’t able to put red state South Dakota’s Senate seat in play.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
June 2, 2014, 4:01 p.m.

If Demo­crats fall a seat short of hold­ing the Sen­ate, there will be a lot of second-guess­ing on the one race that nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized but should have held a lot more prom­ise: South Dakota.

The state is hold­ing its primar­ies Tues­day, and they’re an af­ter­thought. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the Re­pub­lic­an now on a glide path to the Sen­ate, fa­cing weak op­pos­i­tion in the GOP primary. In the gen­er­al elec­tion, he’ll face Rick Wei­l­and, a former state dir­ect­or for Tom Daschle who (even the most op­tim­ist­ic Demo­crats will ac­know­ledge) faces near-im­possible odds in the solidly red state.

But it didn’t have to be that way. The Sen­ate race to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tim John­son could have been one of the most con­sequen­tial con­tests in the coun­try, if Demo­crats had a little more luck. Just over a year ago, the polit­ic­al talk in South Dakota centered on which of their up-and-com­ing pro­spects would run — former Rep. Stephanie Her­seth Sand­lin, one of the most pop­u­lar fig­ures in the state after rep­res­ent­ing it for three full terms in the House, or Tim John­son’s son Brendan John­son, who’s serving as a U.S. at­tor­ney. Des­pite the state’s Re­pub­lic­an moor­ings, now-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s sur­pris­ing 2012 vic­tory in neigh­bor­ing North Dakota served as a fresh re­mind­er that strong can­did­ates run­ning in con­ser­vat­ive-minded states can over­come dis­ad­vant­ages.

As Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee tried to en­gin­eer the situ­ation to their ad­vant­age — they pre­ferred Her­seth Sand­lin to the more-lib­er­al John­son, and wanted to avoid a con­ten­tious primary — the party’s worst-case scen­ario ma­ter­i­al­ized. John­son first ex­pressed his dis­in­terest in May 2013, leav­ing the door wide open for the former con­gress­wo­man to run. At the same time John­son made his de­cision, Wei­l­and an­nounced his can­did­acy with sup­port from some John­son al­lies. Less than a week later, Her­seth Sand­lin sur­prised sup­port­ers by passing on a bid, even without John­son in the race. She an­nounced the de­sire to spend more time with her fam­ily as the reas­on for step­ping aside, but sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives fa­mil­i­ar with her de­cision said she didn’t want to face any primary op­pos­i­tion, even against a longer-shot can­did­ate like Wei­l­and.

“I had sev­er­al con­ver­sa­tions with her, she soun­ded like a can­did­ate. She was on the cusp of run­ning,” said former South Dakota state party Chair­man Ben Nes­sel­huf, who de­camped the state after the dus­tup to man­age an Iowa con­gres­sion­al cam­paign.

Against Wei­l­and, Her­seth Sand­lin would have been a clear fa­vor­ite to win the nom­in­a­tion. But against the more-lib­er­al chal­lenger, she would have been forced to de­fend her vote against the pres­id­ent’s health care law, an is­sue she trum­peted in her un­suc­cess­ful 2010 reelec­tion. In a state where Demo­crats have little mar­gin for er­ror, be­ing pushed to the left in a primary would have been costly in a gen­er­al elec­tion.

In­deed, for all the at­ten­tion the GOP’s es­tab­lish­ment-tea party di­vide re­ceives, this is a race where Demo­crat­ic di­vi­sions between the party’s pro­gress­ive and cent­rist wings cost them an op­por­tun­ity to com­pete. To the ir­rit­a­tion of Re­id and oth­er cam­paign of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton, Daschle en­cour­aged Wei­l­and to run, even though his former staffer’s un­abashedly lib­er­al views make it dif­fi­cult to win in con­ser­vat­ive South Dakota. Re­id even went so far as to pro­claim Wei­l­and wasn’t “his choice” in the race, dis­miss­ing his can­did­acy. But in echoes of the tea party-es­tab­lish­ment battles roil­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party, to the small uni­verse of Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists with­in the state, Wei­l­and’s pro­gress­ive prin­ciples trumped Her­seth Sand­lin’s more-elect­able pro­file.

“Stephanie’s still try­ing to lick some wounds with the party faith­ful that were dis­ap­poin­ted in her health care vote, and can’t get over that. There was a motive there to shut her out, from even en­ter­tain­ing the op­tion from run­ning,” said state Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Jason Frerichs, an ally of Her­seth Sand­lin. “Her de­cision not to run sur­prised so many of us, we’re kick­ing ourselves for not push­ing harder on her to run.”

For a time last year, the pro­spect of a messy primary fight on the Re­pub­lic­an side seemed more likely. Rounds entered the race in early 2013 to much fan­fare, but struggled to raise money and faced grumbling from out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups over his spend­ing re­cord and in­clin­a­tion to­ward deal-mak­ing as gov­ernor. One of the GOP’s rising stars, Rep. Kristi Noem, who un­seated Her­seth Sand­lin in 2010, was ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing en­ter­ing the race, hop­ing to cap­it­al­ize on the con­ser­vat­ive dis­con­tent. But to out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups, her re­cord was as un­ten­able as Rounds’s, with her sup­port of the farm bill and near-the-bot­tom vote rat­ings among House Re­pub­lic­ans from the an­ti­tax Club for Growth. After meet­ing with GOP lead­ers, in­clud­ing Sen. John Thune, she passed on a bid last June. “She real­ized that she could jeop­ard­ize what would be a slam-dunk Re­pub­lic­an op­por­tun­ity,” said one Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cial with ties to South Dakota.

In­stead, the primary op­pos­i­tion to Rounds back home has been splintered among four Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, none of whom have the re­sources to mount a cred­ible cam­paign. (State Rep. Stace Nel­son is ex­pec­ted to be his closest com­pet­it­or.) One of his chal­lengers, phys­i­cian An­nette Bos­worth, drew ri­dicule for hold­ing a press con­fer­ence to de­cry hate­ful rhet­or­ic dir­ec­ted at her cam­paign, where she stood in front of a graf­fiti-scrawled back­drop of epi­thets. Rounds may struggle to re­ceive 55 per­cent of the GOP vote — a mid­dling total for a well-known former gov­ernor, but enough to coast to vic­tory.

An­oth­er reas­on Demo­crats may re­gret not field­ing a stronger can­did­ate: the pres­ence of former Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Larry Pressler on the Novem­ber bal­lot as an in­de­pend­ent. If Her­seth Sand­lin ran, Pressler could have played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in a com­pet­it­ive race, but he’s now a quirky af­ter­thought. Out of polit­ics for over a dec­ade, Pressler was nev­er a threat to win, but he could have peeled away enough Re­pub­lic­an votes from Rounds to make the gen­er­al elec­tion highly com­pet­it­ive.

For her part, Her­seth Sand­lin may have missed her best op­por­tun­ity to com­pete for a polit­ic­al comeback in South Dakota. Un­like oth­er los­ing mem­bers of Con­gress who re­gister as lob­by­ists, Her­seth Sand­lin only spent one year work­ing in Wash­ing­ton (as part­ner at the law firm OFW) be­fore mov­ing back to South Dakota to serve as gen­er­al coun­sel for Raven In­dus­tries. It was a clear sign she wanted to run for of­fice again in her home state. But after passing on the Sen­ate race, it’s hard to find many fu­ture op­por­tun­it­ies.

Thune is a near lock for reelec­tion in 2016, Rounds will have one term of ser­vice un­der his belt, and the gov­ernor’s race won’t be on the bal­lot again un­til 2018. Frerichs said she re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion at the state party’s April McGov­ern Day fun­drais­ing din­ner — an ac­know­ledg­ment that the state’s pro­gress­ive base is over its an­ti­pathy to­ward her can­did­acy, even though it’s far too late to change the tra­ject­ory of the Sen­ate race.

“Des­pite be­ing a Demo­crat, she’s well-liked in the state. She’s still got really strong num­bers. That would have been a le­git­im­ate battle with Rounds,” said the Re­pub­lic­an strategist with ties to South Dakota. “She still would still have the same up­hill sled­ding in a tough en­vir­on­ment, but she would have made Rounds really work for the seat.”

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