With the national media suddenly focused on the three-way free for all that is the South Dakota Senate race, all the attention is flowing to Larry Pressler, the independent who may be catching up with Republican frontrunner Mike Rounds. And that’s understandable, given that Pressler is in second place and Democrat Rick Weiland has not cracked 30 percent in public polls.
But in a telephone interview, Weiland insisted the skeptics were wrong, and that there remains a path to victory for him. And he laid out a strikingly progressive platform as the vehicle to get there: An option of Medicare for all, otherwise known as a new public option; expanding Social Security; aggressive opposition to the Keystone pipeline; and a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
Weiland suggested Pressler would lose support once his record became better known, and drew a sharp contrast with Pressler, the former GOP Senator.
“We have a different approach when it comes to entitlements,” Weiland said. On Social Security, “Larry is very interested in adopting more of a Simpson Bowles approach. I think we need to get the cap off of Social Security. He says Medicare as it is is unsustainable. I don’t know if he’ll go along with the Ryan budget to voucherize Medicare, but my solution is pretty simple: I want to open up Medicare to everyone, let them have the choice. Bringing in a lot of people will make the program stronger.”
Weiland is referring to Simpson-Bowles’ call for for raising the retirement age on Social Security and cutting benefits, and contrasting it with his support for expanding Social Security benefits, which would be funded by raising the payroll tax cap — effectively raising taxes on higher incomes. Pressler has said he might vote to repeal Roe v. Wade, and Weiland told me that he was the “only candidate” in the race who would not repeal it: “That’s very significant.”
Some have expressed skepticism about Weiland’s chances, noting he has not yet gotten above 29 percent and would need to push down Pressler pretty far to win. Asked to respond to the skepticism, Weiland said the contrast with Pressler would enable him to capture more Democrats who might currently support the latter due to his better name recognition.
“I’m still getting my name around,” Weiland said. “That’s going to get solved pretty quickly here in the next few days. Whatever votes [Pressler] is taking from me are going to shift in my direction.”
Weiland noted that 38 percent of the electorate would likely be made up of Democrats, who would “come home” in the end. “If Rounds can’t claw his way back to 40 percent, you’ve got Pressler and Weiland going after the balance of the votes,” he said. “I’ve got a base. I’m not sure Pressler does. And that base is getting more and more motivated every day, when they see that there is an opportunity to win.” By contrast, he said, “the Republican base is divided.”
That name recognition problem might get addressed, now that liberal groups have announced plans to spend a few million dollars on the race. Their initial plans are to target Pressler, but if national Republicans begin advertising against Pressler to save Rounds, liberal groups could shift spending into boosting Weiland up. He said that as he got better known he’d pull in “moderate” and “progressive independents,” too, adding: “I think we have a wider path to victory than anyone else current running.”
Weiland added he believed polls were under-counting Native American votes. “I’ve been endorsed by all the tribes,” he said. “I’ve spent an incredible amount of time working reservations.” He added that his “aggressive opposition” to Keystone put him on the right side of one of their top issues.
The DSCC will spend $1 million to attack Rounds. But national Dems appear to tacitly believe Pressler has the better chance, and they may be gambling that Pressler might caucus with Dems. Asked if the DSCC should also be attacking Pressler, and boosting the Democrat, Weiland demurred. “The fact that the DSCC is in here I think is all about keeping this seat,” he said. “And we can.”
Pressler has expressed support for Obamacare, but Weiland went further, essentially backing a revived public option (what he calls the “Medicare Choice Act”) as the cornerstone to his health care approach — which could get very interesting given that they will be battling for Democratic votes.
“We need to make Medicare available to everyone as an option,” he said. “If they want to spend their money on a private health insurance policy, they can do that. If they want to buy into Medicare, they should be able to do that too. That’s a bill I will introduce. It’s not single payer system; it’s just an option.”
If the race is genuinely close — and we need more polls to know one way or the other — then a lot of cash will flood in. Weiland, who has made overturning Citizens United a key goal, said he’d probably need around $500,000 to be competitive. “I’ve got six people on the ground here,” he said. “That’s the size of my staff.” But he added that the race would be won on retail politics: “At the end of the day, all things being equal, the Super PACs against the Super PACs, it’s going to be showing up in the small towns and living rooms in South Dakota, that’s going to carry me over the line.”
“You guys just don’t get our state,” Weiland concluded. “It’s more of a populist state than a red state.”