Pressler A Factor in South Dakota

Weeks ago, it became a foregone conclusion that Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds would win the open South Dakota US Senate contest for the right to succeed the retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D), but that analysis may be changing. Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R), now running as a left-leaning Independent, is surprisingly becoming a serious factor as the campaign enters the political stretch drive.

A new Survey USA poll (Sept. 3-7; 500 likely South Dakota voters) finds the former two-term governor still leading the race but coming back to the pack, while Pressler is the clear gainer. According to this sampling universe, Rounds attracts 39 percent support as compared to Democrat Rick Weiland, a former aide to ex-US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), who sits 11 points behind at 28 percent. But the story is Pressler’s 25 percent attribution level.

Larry Pressler, now 72 years old, was originally elected to the House in the Watergate year of 1974. He was re-elected in 1976 before successfully winning his Senate seat two years later. He won twice more before falling to Johnson, then a congressman, in the 1996 election. The former senator endorsed Barack Obama for President in 2008, and then again in his re-election drive four years later. As part of the move to Obama, Pressler officially left the Republican Party and became an Independent. It is under this banner that he is again seeking to regain the statewide post he lost 18 years ago.

This is not the first time a poll has shown Rounds running moderately well but under where election analysts placed the race, especially when considering his two solid performances in 2002 and 2006 campaigns for governor (57 and 62 percent, respectively). Prior to serving as the state’s chief executive, Rounds won five two-year terms in the South Dakota state Senate.

The CBS/New York Times/YouGov national survey (Aug. 18-Sept. 2; 526 likely South Dakota voters) found ex-Gov. Rounds taking 43 percent, Weiland posting 29 percent and Pressler tallying only six percent. Therefore, the S-USA poll, if accurate, detects a major swing to Pressler in a short amount of time. The last two Public Policy Polling surveys (Aug. 27-28 and Aug. 12-13, both for the Weiland campaign) giving Rounds leads of only 39-33 percent and 39-31 percent, respectively, found Pressler pulling 17 and 16 percent support. Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies (Aug. 11-13) also found Pressler in the same support area (15 percent), but with Rounds having substantially greater backing (leading Weiland 49-24 percent). Therefore, it is likely the CBS/NYT/YouGov survey is an outlier.

Survey USA also reveals another quirk in the data. When narrowing the polling question to a one-on-one contest between Rounds and Weiland, it becomes obvious that Pressler is hurting the Democratic nominee. If the campaign were only between the two major party contenders, the data portends Rounds’ lead would only be 44-42 percent, considerably different the picture depicted when testing the full slate of candidates scheduled to appear on the November ballot.

Though this race has attracted little national attention, polls like the one from Survey USA will begin to generate new interest in the northern prairie region. The South Dakota contest is a Republican must-win campaign so, at the very least, expect increased activity coming from the GOP and their allied outside organizations. Rounds must still be considered a decided favorite, but his road to Washington could contain some new potholes.

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