Rounds Starting Strong in South Dakota Senate Race

Gov. Mike Rounds

Gov. Mike Rounds

With former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) just completing a series of Washington, DC visits to the PAC community drumming up support for his already announced US Senate run, Public Policy Polling released a survey (March 18-19; 1,069 registered South Dakota voters; 501 Republican primary voters; 390 Democratic primary voters) of the state’s electorate that shows early signs of a GOP conversion race.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D) has promised to soon make clear whether he will seek re-election, originally saying he would do so “at the end of March.” Most local and national political observers believe that he will retire for health reasons.

In a hypothetical ballot test between the senator and Rounds, it is the Republican who already holds the strong early lead. According to PPP, Rounds would defeat Sen. Johnson 52-41 percent in a current contest. If Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD-AL) were the Republican senatorial nominee, she would outpace the incumbent by four points, 49-45 percent.

Should the senator retire, two Democrats are most often mentioned as potential candidates: former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and US Attorney Brendan Johnson, the senator’s son. Herseth Sandlin, who held the at-large House seat for three full terms and part of a fourth — but previously lost to the late Republican former governor Bill Janklow in the 2002 campaign, and then fell to Noem as an incumbent in 2010 — is clearly the stronger of the two Democrats. In fact, relying on the PPP Democratic primary numbers, she scores a huge 68-16 percent margin over Johnson.

In pairing Herseth Sandlin with the Republicans, she would trail Rounds 44-49 percent, but leads Rep. Noem by a bare one-point spread, 48-47 percent. Brendan Johnson shows nothing close to Herseth Sandlin’s strength. He would lose convincingly to both Rounds (32-53 percent) and Noem (37-49 percent).

Rounds announced his senatorial bid soon after the November 2012 election and posted campaign receipts of $269,240 before the end of the year. He is expected to report over $500,000 raised on the March 31 financial disclosure report.

Rep. Noem, on the other hand, has yet to signal whether she will run for the Senate only saying that she isn’t ruling out such a bid. The congresswoman is considered an unlikely candidate, however, and her prospects grow dimmer with every passing day that Rounds uses to build his campaign infrastructure. Noem ended the 2012 campaign cycle with $133,794 cash-on-hand.

For his part, Sen. Johnson maintains a year-end campaign account of $1.23 million. Even if he decides to seek re-election, his political future appears in doubt because Rounds is running a highly competitive campaign and may have already successfully categorized the three-term incumbent as an underdog in the 2014 race.

At least in the earliest part of this new election cycle, it appears that South Dakota and open West Virginia are the two Democratic Senate seats most likely to swing toward the Republicans. Scoring victories in these two states, however, would only bring the GOP back to 47 seats, their level at the beginning of what, for them, turned into a disastrous 2012 election cycle.

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