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Former Republican governor Mike Rounds leads the polls in South Dakota's 2014 U.S. Senate race.

Mike Rounds’ armor pierced?

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By Luke Hagen and Seth Tupper

Poll results show Mike Rounds as a big favorite to win the South Dakota Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014, but developing news stories could pose some problems for him.

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The body of Richard Benda, who served in former governor Rounds’ Cabinet as secretary of tourism and development, was found Oct. 22 in rural Lake Andes. Authorities said Benda died of a gunshot wound and are investigating the death. They’re also investigating alleged financial misconduct in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which Benda oversaw while working in the Rounds Cabinet.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said Thursday that “Mike Rounds was not and is not a target of the state’s investigation into the office of economic development.”

At the same time, state and federal authorities are investigating the finances of the shuttered and bankrupt Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen. Benda, both during his time in the Rounds administration and after, was among those who worked to get the plant built. Millions of dollars in state loans and grants were committed to the plant while Rounds was governor, and Rounds’ South Dakota Certified Beef program was intended to work closely with the plant.

Jon Schaff, who teaches political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said it’s difficult to predict the impact that the so-far incomplete investigations might have on the Senate race.

“The question with scandals of this nature is how close to, in this case the candidate or the prime officeholder, does the scandal get?” Schaff said. “There’s always the question of what did he know, and when did he know it? The answer to that question is sometimes nothing and never.”

If the investigations ultimately link anything to Rounds, Schaff said, political observers will watch to see how Rounds handles it.

“Does the candidate seem to be forthright? Does the candidate seem to be defensive?” Schaff said, referencing standards applied to candidates in crisis situations. “We’ll have to see what opponents do.”

Rounds faces multiple opponents in the race for the Republican nomination. There is one candidate in the race on the Democratic side — though not incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson, who plans to retire — and there’s also a Libertarian candidate. The Republican primary election will be in June 2014, and the general election will be in November 2014.

Rob Skjonsberg, who as chief of staff was in the Rounds Cabinet alongside Benda, is Rounds’ campaign manager.

“We believe the investigation will have no impact whatsoever on the U.S. Senate race,” Skjonsberg said in a written statement given to The Daily Republic. “We believe that once the attorney general’s report and the governor’s review are made public, that speculation will end as the facts are established.

“Meanwhile, we need to let the attorney general and the governor do their jobs. We are confident the reports will be released as soon as possible.”

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