MOBRIDGE, S.D. – Virginia Pearson has plenty of ideas about what South Dakota needs from its next U.S. senator, but little clue about a candidate who recently held an event at the Pizza Ranch here, where Pearson stopped for lunch one afternoon.
“I don’t know a lot about Rick Weiland,” Pearson said.
Neither do a lot of people in South Dakota.
After all, Weiland, a Democrat, was not the first — or even second — choice for the national party. He last ran for office in 1996. His positions on issues such as abortion and the Keystone XL pipeline have led some to conclude he may be too liberal for a state that is trending Republican at the federal level.
While South Dakota is conservative, Democrats have long held a seat in the Senate. Weiland is running to replace Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006 and chose not to run for reelection. So national Democrats should be working furiously to try to keep the seat, right?
Weiland is receiving little to no help from the national party. Some believe national Democrats have all but handed the seat to one of his opponents, popular Republican Mike Rounds. Rounds was South Dakota governor from 2003 to 2011. Two former Republicans are running as independents, which could siphon some votes away from Rounds.
"I'd call it a tacit acknowledgement by the very thin ranks of Democrats here that South Dakota has pretty much transitioned to a single party state; and that their nominee is as good as we could expect given the state and national conditions," said David Wiltse, a professor of political science at South Dakota State University.
Weiland was far from the national party's first choice in a state where convincing conservatives and moderates to vote for the Democratic candidate is a necessity. Former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was heavily recruited by national Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but decided not to run. So was Johnson's son, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who also chose not to jump into the race.
Weiland is a protege of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). He encouraged Weiland to run, much to the dismay of some in the national party. Weiland worked on Daschle's first congressional campaign in 1978 and stayed with him until 1996, when Weiland ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress.
To help combat his lack of name recognition Weiland has been criss-crossing the state, trying to visit all of South Dakota's 311 cities and towns. He's embraced the fact that no one outside of South Dakota is helping him by painting himself as a South Dakota guy whose entrepreneurial spirit extends to his campaign — Weiland and his wife opened a restaurant on a whim a few years ago. One of his biggest complaints against Rounds is that he is too beholden to people outside the state.
Weiland said his biggest issue is fighting big money and special interests, which he said is a "scourge" that influences politics and how policy is made in Washington. In a campaign e-mail sent in April, Weiland called the Supreme Court's decision to strike down limits on campaign contributions "the worst ruling since Dred Scott." He vigorously defended the remark.
"What it's doing to our country is really the number one problem we have to figure out," Weiland said in an interview.
Rounds, Weiland said , "has been really focusing most of his time raising money out of state and trying to buy this race with big money television ads."
"He’s out there shaking down big money donors and I’m out in every nook and cranny in the state shaking hands with everyday folks who I don’t think have a loud enough voice in Washington, D.C. They need a champion," Weiland said.
As of May 14 Weiland raised $833,271, according to Federal Election Commission filings; only $2,438 came from the Democratic party. Rounds has raised $2.8 million and has spent the vast majority of the money. According to his FEC report the majority of Rounds's supporters appear to be from South Dakota but many of those from out of state contributed $2,600 to the campaign, the maximum amount allowed for an individual to give to one candidate under the law.
Weiland said he believes he's getting little help because Democrats are defending vulnerable incumbents and a "flood" of Republican super PAC money into races around the country.
"I’m confident that as we get into the summer and fall parts of this campaign that this race will be viewed as a race that is in play, competitive and it’s going to get a lot of attention," he said. "The focus has been so much on trying to shore up those candidates that it’s going to take some time for them to really focus on South Dakota and so I’ve got a job to do in the interim."
Rounds brushed off Weiland's assertions, claiming that he's not a "Washington insider" who has tailored his campaign to beltway insiders and those who support them.
"I am not part of the Washington, D.C., mess. I do have strong credentials working in South Dakota to improve things," he said.
Rounds ticked off his conservative credentials; he has, however, been criticized by some conservatives for tax increases.
"I'm pro-life, I believe strongly that business is not a dirty word. I believe in the free enterprise system. I think that Obamacare should be replaced," he said. Rounds is also for the Keystone XL pipeline, which will run through South Dakota.
“If we want to take this country back, we start by taking it back from the bureaucrats,” Rounds said.
Rounds is also dealing with continued fallout over a scandal involving a program that offered immigrant investors visas. It was found that the state lost money on the program, records were destroyed and state and federal authorities are investigating. Rounds has said the program was turned over to a private company and helped make significant investments in the state.
Weiland is decidedly liberal. He is pro-choice, against Keystone, supports universal background checks for guns and is against the federal subsidization of big agriculture, which he believes is killing family farms.
"I do think that nationally this race is going to take on a competitive profile," Weiland said. "And I think I’m on the winning side of all these arguments."
Despite his front-runner status, Rounds said he's not taking any chances between now and November.
Democrats are "looking at South Dakota saying maybe they don’t have much of a chance of winning," Rounds said. "From my perspective I can’t take that risk. We take no chances. We're going to work this thing until the day after the election."