The Midterm Report: A South Dakota Senate upset?

The latest curveball of the 2014 cycle could scramble the fight for Senate control

Published October 8, 2014 8:11PM (EDT)

New numbers may once again scramble the battle for Senate control.

The latest race to transform from dormant to potentially decisive? South Dakota, where Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds was long expected to easily win a three-way contest that suddenly appears stunningly close.

The first indication that the contest could be competitive came last week, when Public Policy Polling released a survey that found Rounds’ support had collapsed to 35 percent after a cycle in which most polls had shown the former governor capturing between 39 and 45 percent of the vote. PPP found Democrat Rick Weiland just seven points behind Rounds at 28 percent, while independent Larry Pressler, who served South Dakota in the Senate as a Republican from 1979 to 1997, garnered 24 percent support.

While the PPP survey marked a clear departure from other polls in the race, it came amid renewed scrutiny of the Rounds administration’s alleged misdeeds in handing out foreign visas, and a new poll also suggests that the tide may indeed be turning against Rounds, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011. A Survey USA poll released yesterday found Pressler surging in the race, trailing Rounds by just three points, 35 to 32 percent. Weiland wasn’t far behind, winning 28 percent of likely voters.

In a new post on the South Dakota race, Nate Silver gives Pressler a slightly better chance at winning than Weiland, noting that Weiland’s support hasn’t cracked 30 percent in three-way polls of the race. (Silver still considers Rounds the favorite.) But Weiland could get a boost from a planned $1 million blitz in support of his campaign from Mayday PAC, the “super PAC to end all super PACs” that’s backing Weiland on account of his support for campaign finance reform.

But if Mayday PAC’s pro-Weiland effort significantly boosts the Democrat, wouldn’t that further splinter opposition to Rounds? It would seem so – Survey USA found that if Weiland were to drop out, Pressler would lead Rounds 54 to 39 percent in a two-way race. It's worth noting, however, that in a three-way race, Weiland and Pressler aren’t necessarily competing for the same voters; polls show that Pressler is drawing more Republicans from Rounds than Democrats from Weiland. And given that Mayday's pro-Weiland campaign could lift his fortunes -- and considering that the first- and third-place candidates in the race appear to be separated by single digits -- we may well be looking at a genuine three-person contest, not a race in which either Weiland or Pressler acts as spoiler.

What would a Pressler victory mean for the Senate balance of power? As is typical for independent candidates, Pressler isn’t saying which party he’d caucus with if elected to the Senate. Despite his Republican past, however, it would be far from unsurprising if he opted to caucus with the Democrats. A two-time backer of President Obama, Pressler supports marriage equality, a three percent surtax on incomes over $1 million, and an increase in the minimum wage. He wouldn’t be a down-the-line progressive, however; even as he calls himself an “environmentalist,” Pressler has also criticized some EPA regulations, and he awkwardly straddles the fence when asked where he stands on abortion rights.

A few more polls will help clarify just how much trouble Rounds is really in. But the latest numbers out of the state suggest that with less than four weeks until Election Day, voters may yet throw a few more curveballs.

Update, 4:11 p.m.: In yet another twist, Bloomberg Politics now reports that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is making a foray into the race, with plans to launch a $1 million ad campaign against Rounds. The DSCC's move suggests that the party's internal polls also show a competitive race.

By Luke Brinker

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