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With a healthy Senate majority that could be endangered come 2014, Democrats have to play the next midterm on the defensive side in order to maintain their gap over Republicans. The problem, of course, is that there are Democrat-controlled seats in red states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina as well as two open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia.
While Democrats are at least slight favorites in the seats they occupy, West Virginia is practically all but gone to Rep. Shelly Moore Capito. That leaves South Dakota as the only one that appeared to be up in the air.
The Republicans already had their first big name candidate, nearly the second after the 2012 election cycle ended, in former Governor Mike Rounds. Rounds, while popular in his own right, wasn’t exactly beloved by all South Dakotan Republicans who may prefer a more conservative alternative such as Rep. Kristi Noem or former State Senator Bill Napoli. It would be very hard to beat Rounds in a general but the consensus was that if he got beaten (or even bloodied) by a conservative challenger, the Democrats might have a chance at keeping the seat.
It makes sense too, while the Dakotas are both red (with North being slightly more favorable); Democrats have also had decent success in both. Remember, two of the party’s most iconic politicians of the past forty years in George McGovern and Tom Daschle both represented the Mount Rushmore State (that is its actual nickname) and the retiring Tim Johnson has served three terms in the Senate.
The Democrats also had a small bench of candidates to choose from in former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (son of Tim). However, the relative youth of Brendan Johnson made him a longshot to consider the bid as it was widely assumed that Herseth Sandlin would take the plunge. Yet, in a relatively shocking decision, she also declined a bid choosing to stay on as a general counsel at Raven Industries.
In fact, there was only one announced candidate for Team Blue in the race in former Daschle aide, Rick Weiland. Weiland, if you are familiar with South Dakota politics, is no stranger to campaigning but has lost twice (by very comfortable margins) in both 1996 (to John Thune in the general to replace Johnson as he moved to the Senate) and in 2002 (against Herseth Sandlin in a primary).
Weiland is interesting also because, well, apparently he’s either a legitimate candidate or not depending on who you talk to. Weiland has the support behind Daschle but apparently there’s some contention around his candidacy as neither Harry Reid nor Michael Bennet (chair of the DSCC) seem enthused by the former aide. In that cited POLITICO piece, its implied that the establishment wanted Herseth Sandlin but after hearing of Daschle pushing Weiland into a run; she apparently demurred which infuriated Reid and Co.
However, that report can’t obviously be verified but it does seem to reflect that there is at least a feud between the former and current Senate Democrat leaders. Daschle is still a huge name, even though the last time he was on the national stage it wasn’t positive, but not having his support could’ve made Herseth Sandlin have second thoughts.
But why would she still be wary of competing against someone like Weiland who has had zero electoral success nor is a big South Dakotan name (Herseth Sandlin’s father ran for Governor and her grandfather was Governor)? One theory I have is that Weiland made it clear that he’s going to run as a progressive and Herseth Sandlin is a moderate. If, by some measure, the primary were to be competitive; Herseth Sandlin might’ve had to run a bit more to the left. Once a general would occur, it would be hard to re-establish yourself as a moderate; especially in blood red South Dakota.
Nonetheless, unless Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has second thoughts about running, the bench seems to be pretty clear in South Dakota with Weiland on board. Weiland, to his credit, will likely excite some netrooters as he will probably run a prairie populist campaign in the vein of McGovern or Daschle. In fact, he’s even had a bit of a plug at the DailyKos and the point that Harry Reid not supporting him might be a slight boost to Weiland’s chance as well.
Still if Weiland is the candidate, should Democrats consider this seat done all but given? I usually consider myself a voice of optimism about politics, there’s always a Richard Mourdock that could really shake things up, but it will be a tall, tall order for Democrats to even have a fighting shot here. South Dakota is red and Weiland isn’t the type of Democratic candidate that usually wins races there.
While running a McGovern-style campaign could help Weiland, it has been a rarity for that to work for other candidates (remember both McGovern and Daschle were beaten, as opposed to retiring). Granted, if the DSCC pours money into the race (presumably if someone not named Mike Rounds wins the primary) and the machine gets behind Weiland; he could crack 45% but its going to be an uphill battle.
If another more desirable, establishment candidate doesn’t step forward; its likely that the DSCC pays this race minimal attention and divvying its resources to the North Carolina and Louisiana races (while watching Kentucky if Alison Lundergan Grimes takes the plunge). Weiland’s best shot at winning comes if there is a far-right challenger and even then, South Dakota might just be too much for Democrats to handle.