Former Republican Senator Making His Comeback as an Independent

Larry Pressler of South Dakota served in the Senate for 18 years. He’s changed a lot since then.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Nov. 13, 2013, 6:30 a.m.

A former three-term Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or pub­licly mulling wheth­er to make a comeback as an in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate counts as news. And Larry Pressler’s po­ten­tial South Dakota Sen­ate can­did­acy sounds more in­triguing the more he talks.

Like, say, about wheth­er he think he could ac­tu­ally win an elec­tion again.

“I think it’s pos­sible but un­likely,” the 71-year-old told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I think maybe I’d be like Wil­li­am Buckley. If I won the elec­tion, I would de­mand a re­count.”

A day after the news broke that Pressler was con­sid­er­ing a cam­paign, few polit­ic­al strategists knew what to make of his can­did­acy. Any can­did­ate who doubts his own chances of vic­tory is easy to dis­miss. The fate of South Dakota’s Sen­ate race, more than most, seems fixed: Former Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mike Rounds, as­sum­ing he sur­vives a primary nuis­ance, ap­pears headed for the Sen­ate in a solidly Re­pub­lic­an state. Demo­crats failed to re­cruit a top-tier con­tender there.

But Pressler, who has spent much of his post-Sen­ate ca­reer as a pro­fess­or at sev­er­al uni­versit­ies in South Dakota, isn’t a gad­fly. He served as South Dakota’s GOP sen­at­or from 1979 to 1997. His name is still fa­mil­i­ar to many South Dakota voters. And al­though he served as a Re­pub­lic­an then, he’d run as an in­de­pend­ent now, at­tempt­ing to cap­it­al­ize on wide­spread voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion with both parties.

Pressler is right: He’s a long shot. But his au­then­ti­city and can­did com­ments could spice up an oth­er­wise bor­ing race. With polls re­port­ing re­cord dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, his can­did­acy could test wheth­er voters would ever ac­tu­ally turn to an in­de­pend­ent can­did­acy as an out­let for their frus­tra­tion.

In an in­ter­view, he de­tailed a plat­form re­min­is­cent of the Simpson-Bowles de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion plan (he vo­lun­teered for the high-pro­file group Fix the Debt). He wants to close tax loop­holes, and he fa­vors an­oth­er broad tax in­crease on the rich sim­il­ar to what was in­cluded as part of this year’s fisc­al-cliff deal. He also wants to gradu­ally raise the So­cial Se­cur­ity re­tire­ment age, and sup­ports slow­ing the growth of those pay­ments, call­ing such an out­come “won­der­ful.”

Pressler, a self-de­scribed hunter, sup­ports “much, much stronger back­ground checks” for gun sales and ban­ning some, if not all, as­sault rifles. He de­murred when asked wheth­er he would want to ban abor­tions at 20 weeks, but de­scribed him­self as more on “an­ti­abor­tion” side of the de­bate. He de­scribes a for­eign policy vis­ion in which Amer­ica scales back its de­fense budget and its in­volve­ment in in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs.

The former law­maker says he sees a polit­ic­al sys­tem in which both parties are too en­trenched in their re­spect­ive ideo­lo­gies, at the ex­pense of com­mon­sense solu­tions. And he thinks voters see things the same way.

“We could have a budget deal very eas­ily, and every­body is angry be­cause we can’t we do it,” Pressler said. “My the­ory is by elect­ing more in­de­pend­ents “¦ this might break it loose.”

But des­pite his eager­ness for rais­ing taxes and cut­ting en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, those aren’t polit­ic­ally pop­u­lar is­sues—even for in­de­pend­ent-minded voters. His former GOP sup­port­ers will find plenty in his re­cord to com­plain about. He sup­por­ted Pres­id­ent Obama twice and em­braces gay mar­riage. Al­though he and his wife have re­tained a home in South Dakota, he es­tim­ated he’s only spent 10 per­cent to 20 per­cent of his time there in the last dec­ade, split­ting the bulk of his days between Wash­ing­ton and for­eign coun­tries. And he con­cedes that many of the people who once voted for him have either moved away or are now dead.

Pressler says there’s a “60/40” chance he’ll run; he’ll spend the re­main­ing weeks of 2013 trav­el­ing South Dakota and make a de­cision by Janu­ary.

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