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Thune, Williams make their case for U.S. Senate

If there ever was an underdog in a South Dakota election, it's Jay Williams. The Yankton Democrat -- who's never held political office -- is running to oust U.S. Sen. John Thune from the seat he's held for 12 years. After holding office in U.S. C...

U.S. Sen. John Thune, left, and Jay Williams speak during separate forums at DakotaFest earlier this year. (Republic file photos)
U.S. Sen. John Thune, left, and Jay Williams speak during separate forums at DakotaFest earlier this year. (Republic file photos)

If there ever was an underdog in a South Dakota election, it's Jay Williams.

The Yankton Democrat - who's never held political office - is running to oust U.S. Sen. John Thune from the seat he's held for 12 years. After holding office in U.S. Congress for 18 of the last 20 years and rising to become the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, Thune's confident he's in a better position than his opponent to promote the policies most important to his constituents.

"I think, too, I'm in a position where I can really get results for South Dakota," Thune said. "I chair a major committee, I serve on the Ag Committee, of course, which is deals with our No. 1 industry, and the Finance Committee, which deals with taxes and trade and Medicare and Social Security, and of course the Commerce Committee has a broad swath of jurisdiction."

In Williams, Thune finds himself squaring off with his first opponent in 12 years, having faced no challenger in 2010 when he received 100 percent of the vote.

While Thune entered the race armed with a wealth of political experience and millions in his campaign account, Williams found himself so dissatisfied with the status quo and "obstructionism" from Thune that he decided to take on the tough task of defeating a popular Republican incumbent in an overwhelmingly red state.

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"I, really like a lot of people, have been really dissatisfied with what's going on in our Congress, I mean it seems totally disfunctional to me, they can't seem to get along and do anything," Williams.

The Yankton businessman targeted Thune's decision to stand alongside his fellow Senate Republicans in delaying hearings for President Barack Obama's U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, although Thune said his stance falls in line with the majority of South Dakotans who'd rather see the 45th president select a nominee.

Throughout a scrappy, upstart campaign, Williams has also pointed to Thune's career as a politician, which Williams believes contributes to partisan-influenced gridlock on Capitol Hill.

"He participated in the government shutdown in 2013," Williams said. "I'd say he's very, very obstructionist."

Thune, however, says the Senate has gotten results since he took office.

"In my time in office, I think what the people here in South Dakota expect and deserve is for us to get results, and we get results," Thune said. "I mean, (Williams) makes those accusations, but he doesn't have anything to point to other than the Supreme Court nomination, which as I mentioned, I think most people out here would agree that the next president ought to make that nomination."

If re-elected, Thune hopes to continue getting results and putting legislation on the president's desk, particularly in the areas of telecommunications law and the tax code.

Thune - who will continue serving as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation if he's re-elected and the Republican Party maintains the Senate majority - wants to overhaul the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act, which was introduced in 1995 by former U.S. Senator and fellow South Dakotan Larry Pressler, was last amended before the widespread use of the internet.

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"The areas of focus that we've had, just because of the way that impacts South Dakota, is making sure that broadband - both wireless and fixed - is broadly available in rural areas of the country and people have access to high-speed internet services," Thune said. "I guess I would like to see us eliminate some of the ambiguity and legal uncertainty that exists today in that area."

With a lot of litigation in the telecommunications industry, Thune said the current laws have a chilling effect on investment. With clearer rules, he said the country could see both more investment and more jobs in the technology sector.

While Thune hopes to get a crack at modernizing telecommunications law, as well as reforming the tax code, Williams' priority is addressing climate change.

Williams said the country only began using fossil fuels by default, and he's looking for an opportunity to promote the use of renewable energy if elected to the Senate. Williams said the atmospheric temperature is rising at an "alarming" rate, a problem he said must be addressed sooner rather than later.

"John Thune, he doesn't deny that that's happening, 'He says, well maybe humans have something to do with it and it can't happen overnight,' but I think that what's happening with our climate is so important that we need to make it a high-priority issue," Williams said.

'Obstructionist' versus 'authentic liberal'

While the two candidates differed on policy priorities, they also disagreed on the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The ACA, also known as Obamacare, was enacted by Obama as a method to lower the uninsured rate by increasing health care access through a public health insurance option. And recently, the premiums for coverage under the ACA were said to rise.

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Thune maintains the Act should be repealed and replaced, although he did admit protections for patients with pre-existing conditions should be maintained. Although he sees a handful of benefits, he said the overall ACA has been a "trainwreck."

Williams disagreed, saying Thune and his fellow Republicans will simply repeal the Act without replacing it.

"Instead of working to make it better and to implement things that they think would make it better, they just want to repeal it, that shows how bad they are about this," Williams said.

Although Williams has targeted Thune for "obstructionist" tendencies, as exemplified by Williams' comments on Thune's stance on Obamacare, Thune called Williams an "authentic liberal" who isn't in line with the voters of South Dakota.

"He is an authentic liberal - I mean he is - in fact, he's the most liberal South Dakotan I've ever met to run for statewide office in our state," Thune said. "The guy literally is for every possible kind of tax increase."

And Williams faces a great challenge in in gaining enough name recognition and support to sway voters away from Thune's camp. According to the Secretary of State's office, South Dakota has 252,084 registered Republicans and 170,655 registered Democrats, leaving Williams trying to fight off a well-known incumbent with a deficit of 81,429 voters registered with his party.

If Thune does win a third term, he said he intends to serve all six years of his term, but he wouldn't rule out seeking a higher office if called upon. In the past, Thune's name has been rumored as both a possible presidential and vice presidential candidate.

"My intention is I'm running for South Dakota senator, and I've always put the state first when I'm in the job," Thune said. "I know there are always potentially other opportunities that might come along, and I just don't think you close the door entirely. I think if you want to make a difference, if you want to have an impact for your state, for your country, you don't rule things out."

Related Topics: JOHN THUNEELECTION 2016
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