South Dakota Dems: Going, Going . . .

The Politico newspaper ran a story yesterday detailing a strategic political difference between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and former leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) over who should be the South Dakota Democratic senatorial nominee. The party is battling to hold retiring Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D) seat. We analyze a number of points related to this contest below.

First: Polling shows, and most people believe, that former representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would be the Democrats’ strongest candidate. Sen. Reid was clearly in this camp, but Daschle was apparently a major force behind his former aide, Rick Weiland, entering the race. Last week, soon after Weiland’s announcement, the former congresswoman made public her decision not to run.

Analysis: While Herseth Sandlin showed best against GOP former governor Mike Rounds in early ballot test polling, she was still consistently trailing. Though she successfully served three terms, the ex-member did lose her House seat as a sitting incumbent. The fact that she fails to lead a poll in what could well be the apex of her candidacy is a good indication that she may not be the ideal 2014 Democratic standard bearer, and probably made the right decision in bypassing the race.

Second: The prevailing wisdom suggests that the Democrats should field a more conservative candidate who would have greater appeal to the South Dakota electorate. Conversely, Weiland argues, “You run a Republican against a Republican, you’re going to elect a Republican.”

Analysis: The record since 2006 seems to back Weiland’s assessment. Moderates of both parties have not fared well during this four-election period, as their ranks in both houses have become badly depleted. Particularly in 2006, ’08 and ’10, an anti-incumbency strain that affected both parties became more of a driving factor than the electorate gravitating to a “centrist” candidate, and this is particularly true in the mid-term elections.

Third: Former governor Rounds obtained the early upper hand because he made a definitive move to enter the race immediately after the 2012 election and continues to actively campaign.

Analysis: The statement is true. Every day the Democrats fail to find and coalesce around one candidate, the stronger Rounds becomes. The former governor’s early political strategy has been excellent, and his campaign implementation strong. He is the clear favorite and should remain in this position barring a major mistake.

Fourth: Some conjecture still remains that Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD-AL) will challenge Rounds in the Republican primary.

Analysis: It is highly unlikely that Noem will enter the race, particularly after the Club for Growth leadership, which should be a source of major funding for her, has expressed only luke-warm feelings. Without strong financial backing, a Noem challenge to the former governor would be doomed, particularly since he is well-regarded among most of the state’s social issue conservatives.

Fifth: The South Dakota race is beginning to be portrayed as the Democrats’ biggest candidate recruitment failure in their quest to hold the Senate majority.

Analysis: South Dakota is, so far, the Democrats’ second major failure. The biggest problem on their political horizon is in West Virginia where they have no candidate to challenge Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV-2) in the battle to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

There is no question that the Republicans are in strong position to convert South Dakota and West Virginia. Yet, even if this happens they are still four seats away from control. Therefore, the Democrats have several firewalls already established in other states that Republicans must overcome irrespective of scoring victories in the two aforementioned places. While the early odds clearly suggest Republican wins in South Dakota and West Virginia, the Democrats are still favored to remain in control of the chamber.

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