Rounds looks to unite GOP for US Senate race
By Dirk Lammers and Regina Garcia Cano
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Fresh from a decisive Republican primary victory, former Gov. Mike Rounds now must work to unite the fractious GOP behind him as he embarks on a four-way general election race for South Dakota's open U.S. Senate seat.
Rounds on Tuesday captured the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tim Johnson by beating physician Annette Bosworth, attorney and Army Reserves Maj. Jason Ravnsborg, state Sen. Larry Rhoden and state Rep. Stace Nelson.
Rounds said the vast majority of South Dakota Republicans support him and he thinks he can build the coalition to win in November. A victory would give Republicans both South Dakota's U.S. Senate seats for the first time in 28 years.
"I think we've got a lot more in common than what some people would suggest," Rounds said of his GOP rivals. "Just because other people want the same job and they've got different styles of trying to get it doesn't make them bad people."
The former governor has long been considered the front-runner in the Republican leaning state, but the upcoming November election could add some twists.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who is running as an independent, has strong name recognition and could appeal to moderates fed up with partisanship. And Nelson could send his votes to the other independent candidate, former state lawmaker Gordon Howie, whose conservative constituency mirrors Nelson's supporters.
"The question is how quickly does the party unite around Mike Rounds?" said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University.
Nelson repeatedly dogged Rounds during the campaign, accusing the former governor of increasing state government spending, supporting a federal immigration visa program that resulted in a bankrupt beef plant and taking too much special interest money from out-of-state supporters.
Nelson said he and Rounds have "significant ideological differences" that led to him jumping in the race.
"Just because he was able to pour millions of dollars in East Coast special interest money into the race to buy it doesn't mean I can support him now," Nelson said.
The South Dakota U.S. Senate race is one Republicans believe they have a good chance to win because President Barack Obama lost the state badly in the 2012 election. Republicans need to make a net gain of six seats to take over the majority in the U.S. Senate.
In South Dakota's gubernatorial race, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard easily fought off a challenge from former state Rep. Lora Hubbel. On the Democratic side, state Rep. Susan Wismer of Britton topped former state wildfire agency head Joe Lowe.
Rounds, 59, moves on to the Nov. 4 general election to face Democratic business owner Rick Weiland and the two independents.
Weiland, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, has built a strong grassroots campaign reminiscent of his former boss. But the 55-year-old Sioux Falls restaurant owner hasn't been able to match Rounds' fundraising. Weiland has collected about $733,000 in contributions compared to $2.8 million for Rounds, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports.
Pressler, who describes himself a "passionate centrist," served two terms in the House followed by three Senate terms from 1975 to 1997. The 72-year-old Pressler has struggled to raise money but could steal both Democratic and Republican votes, Schaff said.
Howie, 64, served in the Legislature between 2005 and 2010. He entered the race as an independent in April but said he was supporting Nelson in the Republican primary and would drop out of the race if Nelson won the GOP nomination.
Rhoden, who finished second with more than 18 percent of the Republican primary vote, said he's not yet ready to announce who he'll support in November.
"Tonight I'm focused on the people who came here to support me and expressing my gratitude to those folks," he said.
Nelson, who collected just shy of 18 percent of the vote to finish third, said Howie is the better option for conservative voters.
"Gordon Howie is heads and shoulders a Republican above Mike Rounds any day," he said.
The unhappiness of some conservatives raises the question whether this could split the Republican vote in November and hurt Rounds.
"Is it enough to make it a close race, to give Rick Weiland a chance to win?" Schaff asked, adding that it would be a long shot.
This is because some 46 percent of registered voters are Republicans, 34 percent Democrats and 16 percent Independents, giving the GOP a built in advantage.