Senate Republicans squandered ripe pickup opportunities in Montana and North Dakota this year. They’ll have a chance at redemption in the Great Plains come 2014, with popular former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds kicking off his Senate campaign on Thursday.
Republican strategists believe Rounds is an elite recruit, which is exactly what the GOP needs in a region where 2012 voters were willing to elect Democratic Senate candidates, even as they overwhelmingly supported the Republican presidential candidate.
Part of the reason Senate Democrats won unlikely victories in Montana and North Dakota this year was the disparity in candidate strength. Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp and Sen. Jon Tester simply proved to be better campaigners than Rep. Denny Rehberg and Rep. Rick Berg.
Republicans will have a different option in Rounds. He served two terms as governor and won’t be bogged down by the Washington connections that hamstrung Rehberg and Berg. He left office in great shape -- an automated Rasmussen poll in October of 2010 showed 62 percent of South Dakotans approving of his job performance, with 37 percent disapproving. Finally, he’s aware of the importance of retail campaigning in a state with a small population.
“People have to feel comfortable approaching you,” Rounds told The Fix in an interview after announcing his candidacy. “They have to feel like they can trust you.”
While the 2014 race in South Dakota is among the earliest to take shape, there are still some key questions yet to be answered that could have a significant impact on the outcome of the contest.
The most pressing one is whether Sen. Tim Johnson (D) will run. The third-term senator, who suffered a brain aneurysm in 2006, is the only statewide Democratic statewide officeholder in an increasingly Republican-friendly South Dakota, where Republicans control the state House and Senate, the governor’s mansion and the only U.S. House seat.
While he isn’t ready to say he is officially running for reelection, Johnson’s reaction Thursday to Rounds’s announcement hinted at another campaign.
“As in past campaigns, I will make my formal announcement later next year,” said Johnson, who called Rounds “a friend.” “But I feel great, still have work to do, and I fully intend to put together a winning campaign in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, I intend to continue to focus on my important work representing South Dakota.”
If Johnson runs, he'll face the predicament Democratic Senate contenders in Montana and North Dakota were confronted with this year. In addition to the advantage the GOP holds in South Dakota state offices, President Obama is very unpopular in the state; he lost there by 18 points to Mitt Romney. And Johnson’s votes for some of Obama’s signature measures, like the stimulus and health-care reform bills, will be obvious targets for GOP attacks.
“We disagree on some key issues, some policy points,” Rounds said of Johnson. “I’ve told folks that I consider Tim a friend, but at the same time that there has to be a different direction.”
If Johnson doesn’t run, the most obvious Democratic alternative is former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who was unseated by now-Rep. Kristi Noem (R) in one of 2010’s highest-profile House races. Herseth Sandlin’s name is well known in the state – she is the granddaughter of two former statewide officeholders.
Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, who managed Johnson’s narrow 2002 reelection victory over now-Sen. John Thune (R), suggested Johnson’s son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, is another name to watch if the senator decides to retire. Brendan Johnson was nominated for his post by Obama.
Whichever Democrat ends up as the nominee could take a cue from Heitkamp and Tester, who ran hyper-local campaigns and underscored centrist positions. Heitkamp, for example, was very vocal about her disagreements with the Obama administration on energy.
Rounds has also shown signs he may be a good fit for political moderates in 2014. While he said he doesn't like the idea of raising taxes, the former governor has refused to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, which has become a point of contention in the congressional debate over the "fiscal cliff."
“I’ve always declined to sign the no new taxes pledge,” Rounds said, adding that you “lose your ability to negotiate” by taking inflexible vows.
Hildebrand argued that Rounds’s broad appeal, though, could be undercut by a lack of enthusiastic supporters.
“It’s important to understand that Rounds's support is wide, but incredibly shallow,” said Hildebrand.
For now at least, Senate Republican leaders should be happy about where they are in the South Dakota Senate race. They got the man they wanted, following a cycle in which they learned -- the hard way -- that candidates matter.