MERCER: Rounds' early start appears quite smart
PIERRE -- We are now one year from the June 3, 2014, primary elections in South Dakota. That is significant because South Dakota voters will be choosing a new U.S. senator next year.
So far voters don't have a choice. The only declared candidate is Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds.
As each day passes, with the field still all to himself, his decision to jump into the contest last November looks smarter.
Mike now has a head start of six months on any other candidate -- if there ever is another candidate.
He used the time to raise money and put a basic organization into place.
In the first quarter of this year his campaign raised $183,463 and spent $67,654. Some observers dismissed those numbers as small and a signal that perhaps a Rounds candidacy isn't catching fire.
Regardless, that's more money than any other U.S. Senate candidate has brought in for the 2014 South Dakota contest.
Right now, there still isn't a contest. No other Republican has stepped forward. No Democrat has stepped forward.
If someone plans to challenge for the Republican nomination, that person has about 55 weeks before primary day. That's not enough time to visit each of the 66 counties at a rate of one per week.
As for money, a challenger starts in a $368,951 hole.
That's how much cash the Rounds campaign had on hand as of the March 31 ending date for the first-quarter report filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Actually the hole is deeper, because the Rounds campaign spent $16,096 in November and December, and another $67,654 from January through March.
A big chunk of the $368,951 of the cash he had remaining on March 31 came from the $269,240 money he raised in the closing weeks of 2012. He was able to bank $253,143 for future use.
So, back to the hypothetical challenger for the Republican nomination, that candidate would need to make up more than $450,000 in the next 55 weeks just to catch up and would still need to match the Rounds campaign dollar for dollar.
The only Republicans who come to mind on the current political scene with that kind of pull are Gov. Dennis Daugaard and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.
Daugaard has endorsed the Rounds candidacy for Senate and is raising money for his own re-election to a second term as governor in 2014.
At this point there isn't an announced challenger, Republican or Democrat, to Daugaard, either.
There remains a strong undercurrent of Noem supporters who prefer that she be the Senate candidate. She hasn't ruled out a Senate candidacy but publicly seems focused on her main job as South Dakota's only member in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Noem raised $269,844 in the first quarter of 2013, which was more than Rounds, largely because of $93,550 of contributions from political action committees.
She ended the first quarter with $287,214 cash on hand. That was about $80,000 less than the Rounds campaign had.
Noem faces re-election to the House seat in 2014. Like Rounds and Daugaard, she doesn't have a challenger yet, Republican or Democrat.
She is the wildcard at this point.
As for Democrats, they are in a difficult spot after the announcement by U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2014.
Johnson is the Democrats' last statewide office holder. His son Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for the district of South Dakota, is the subject of a "draft Brendan" attempt to fill that slot on the ballot.
Meanwhile former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is showing interest in running again after her 2010 loss to Noem.
Johnson has never run for office. Herseth Sandlin has run seven times including the 2002 Democratic primary for U.S. House and won five.
If either runs, she or he faces a South Dakota electorate that has been willing to support the right Democrat and has been willing to support a woman for Congress.
Between Herseth Sandlin and Noem, a woman has been elected to the U.S. House seat in six consecutive elections, counting the mid-2004 special election.
On the other hand, South Dakota voters have been much more willing to elect Republicans now for a long time. The last big set of elections was a sweep for Republicans in 2010.
Democrats didn't run an opponent against Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune.
The Democratic candidate for governor that year, Scott Heidepriem, received just 38.5 percent of the vote against Daugaard.
Herseth Sandlin received just 45.9 percent of the vote against Noem and a third candidate that year.
As for Mike Rounds, he won his two general elections for governor with 56.8 percent in 2002 and 61.7 percent in 2006. As for Kristi Noem, she won re-election in 2012 with 57.5 percent against Democrat Matt Varilek.
Right now, Mike Rounds is the presumptive winner of the U.S. Senate seat in 2014. Nobody wants to take him on. Nobody seems to want to take on Kristi Noem or Dennis Daugaard either.