Former Gov. Mike Rounds leads the polls in South Dakota's 2014 U.S. Senate race, but he is below 50 percent. That is giving his opponents a whole lot of hope.
"I am sensing support for Mike Rounds is incredibly soft," said Gordon Howie, a steadfast conservative Republican during his time in the state Legislature, now running as an independent against Rounds. "The ground is shifting. You can just feel it."
The candidates, running to replace retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., will meet in a debate at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, at Dakotafest near Mitchell.
Howie notes that Rounds won a five-way Republican primary with 55.5 percent of the vote and said he is hearing reports of arguments breaking out among Republican activists and officials at county-level gatherings when some express doubt about whether they will vote for Rounds in November.
Another former Republican and former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler said he, too, senses the Rounds campaign is targeting him through a website - www.larrypressler-thetruth.com - though he can't prove who's behind the site.
"I don't know why they're even worried about me. They've been going around with a message about how weak I am. They shouldn't be allocating their time to me if I'm that weak," Pressler said.
He says he has heard reports of Republican loyalists speaking up at meetings, directing people to the website.
Democrat Rick Weiland, who is second in the polls, said he believes the Rounds campaign has started criticizing him over his position on Obamacare and support for universal Medicare because it is worried.
"It's the first time they've paid any attention to me," Weiland said. "They hit the panic button."
Rounds dismisses his opponents' observations as mostly wishful thinking, saying he is comfortable with his lead, but he will continue to campaign actively until the election in November.
"We're just fine. I've always heard stories from folks that are trailing that they're moving forward. What else do you expect them to say?" Rounds said. "We're going to continue doing what we're doing because it's working."
Rounds said that voters on the trail are generally friendly and offer generic messages of support or encouragement until he starts talking about issues. That's when he senses their support solidify, he said.
"It doesn't take long to refocus on issues that really separate the candidates. Once you get on an issue -- I've got competitors that don't support the Keystone XL pipeline. That polls two-to-one favorable in South Dakota," Rounds said.
His opposition to Obamacare also strikes a chord with voters, the former governor said.
The fact that Rounds is polling below 50 percent -- he declined to release any internal polling information to The Daily Republic -- has not changed minds in Washington, D.C., where South Dakota is often listed as the Senate seat most likely to switch from Democrat to Republican.
"To me, he's still pretty clearly a favorite," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, which watches congressional races nationwide. "If he were below 50 in a two-person race, that's potentially a problem. Very few candidates in competitive races are over 50 at this point."
Kondik notes that Democrats surprised the national political establishment in 2012 with the unexpected victory of Heidi Heitkamp to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota.
Jon Schaff, political science professor at Northern State University, does not share Kondik's unwavering confidence that Rounds has all but won the race.
"The polls tell you that over 50 percent of the electorate is looking for somebody else. He hasn't consolidated his position as the frontrunner," Schaff said. "If you add the 14 percent for Larry Pressler and the 30 percent for Weiland, that adds up to 44 percent, and that beats Mike Rounds. I can't see how that's good news for Mike Rounds."
When asked about some internal Rounds polling information recently released to the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call that indicated Pressler is drawing more votes from Democrats and potential Weiland voters than he is from Republicans/would-be Rounds voters, Schaff said it's difficult to evaluate without seeing the complete polling data.
"There's a certain amount of facial validity to that. Larry Pressler is running as an almost old-school liberal Republican," Schaff said, also noting there remain some older voters who have "residual good feelings" about Pressler.
Schaff said Pressler might attract votes of Democrats who were loyal to the less liberal Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and who aren't completely comfortable with Weiland's "full-throated progressive agenda."
"There's probably a chunk of the Democratic Party that thinks, 'Can't there be a moderate alternative?' " Schaff said.
Weiland's campaign -- visiting every South Dakota city, town, village and hamlet multiple times -- reminds Schaff of the late liberal lion Paul Wellstone's 1990 victory in Minnesota. The underdog, unapologetic liberal defeated Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz with a similar campaign -- but in a more liberal state, Schaff is quick to note.
"If a Rick-Weiland-type were going to win, he would have to be doing what the actual Rick Weiland is doing," Schaff said.
For there to be any path to victory for anyone other than Rounds, voters en masse would need to stop thinking of Rounds as the frontrunner, Schaff said. That could happen because, he said, Rounds lacks the room-dominating charisma of John Thune and the disciplined political organization of the late Bill Janklow.
"Sometimes people's support is based on assumptions, and when an edifice starts to crack, it can crack very quickly. Mike Rounds is not a political superstar," Schaff said. "That said, I'd still rather be Mike Rounds than Rick Weiland in this race."
Rounds maintains that he is comfortable with his campaign and his position in the polls.
"The reality is, as people follow this more and more, I'm going to be not just as solid as we are now, it will increase as people recognize the difference on issues," Rounds said. "We're very comfortable with where we're at."
Two recent polls in South Dakota's 2014 U.S. Senate race:
Clarity Poll, national Democratic polling group, July 16-July 23, 3,738 registered voters
- Mike Rounds - 34 percent
- Rick Weiland - 24 percent
- Larry Pressler - 10 percent
- Gordon Howie - 3 percent
- Undecided - 29 percent
Nielson Brothers Poll, Sioux Falls-based non-partisan firm, July 23-28, 578 likely voters
- Mike Rounds - 43 percent
- Rick Weiland - 30 percent
- Larry Pressler - 14 percent
- Gordon Howie - 4 percent
- Undecided - 9 percent