Opinion writer

Many issues are at play in these 2014 midterm elections. The 1970s Abscam scandal has not been one of them.

Until now.

Former Republican senator Larry Pressler, mounting an independent candidacy to recapture the seat he lost 18 years ago, has made a campaign theme of his refusal to take a bribe. In 1978.

“This press conference is not for me to be bragging about Abscam,” Pressler said at a campaign event Thursday, before bragging about the scandal, which inspired the 2013 movie “American Hustle.”

“I have been much praised based on the transcript of Abscam,” Pressler, 72, told the reporters assembled in a conference room overlooking the Big Sioux River. “Walter Cronkite referred to me as a hero,” he continued, and the judge in the case praised his behavior.

Pressler then called to the microphones the FBI agent who directed the Abscam sting, John Good, 78. “Senator Pressler was an honest man,” the agent, who retired 28 years ago, attested.

That’s nice, but for all the typical American remembers of Abscam, Pressler might as well be talking about his role in Teapot Dome.

Yet the event was emblematic of Pressler’s quixotic — and surprisingly successful — candidacy. He’s running on a platform to return politics to the way it was when he served in Congress, from 1974 to 1997 — before the flood of money and proliferation of ideological purity tests turned the legislature into a combat zone where little gets done. His idea is so crazy it just might work; it already has, in a way, by shaking up a race that was supposed to be easy for the Republicans.

Instead, former GOP governor Mike Rounds has been weakened by a convoluted scandal involving a beef plant and the suicide of a cabinet member. The Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland, isn’t top-tier, and a tea-party entrant hasn’t gained traction. This has made Pressler viable and allowed him to shape the race.

Pressler’s big idea: He would form a new “centrist coalition” in the Senate with other independents and moderates — a big enough bloc to determine the majority in a closely divided chamber.

Wishful thinking, probably, but in Pressler’s fantasy it would restore the clout centrists had before he lost a bid for a fourth Senate term in 1996. “I’m basically the moderately conservative person I’ve always been,” says Pressler, who had a 79 percent lifetime conservative voting record. “I feel my party has moved to the right.”

He laments the no-new-taxes litmus test for Republicans (and similar tests for Democrats) and was “embarrassed” by the state GOP’s call for Obama’s impeachment. He thinks if a President Mitt Romney had implemented what is now called Obamacare, “all the Republicans would be feverishly for it.”

Pressler was an eccentric in Washington and hasn’t changed. He reads cowboy poetry in public and is riding his 1929 tractor in this weekend’s Hobo Day parade. His rambling speeches and absent-mindedness (he started Thursday’s news conference by asking “what is the day?”) has led some to think him dim. But Pressler was a Rhodes scholar and Harvard law graduate.

His legislative agenda is as quirky as he is. He wants a holocaust museum for Native Americans (“I think that would be a bigger tourist attraction than Mount Rushmore”), would ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions and supports South Dakota’s restrictive abortion law. Mostly, he wants to return to “old-fashioned” constituent service, such as getting South Dakotans better air service and getting a better deal for the region from the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I’m parochial in that sense,” Pressler said. “What’s good for South Dakota is good for the nation.”

But the ideological groups pouring millions into the race care little about Rapid City’s flight connections. Pressler counts a dozen entities — including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on which he once served — attacking him in ads as too liberal, too conservative, a carpetbagger or a self-dealer.

In a way, this attention means Pressler has already won: He has proved there’s a hunger in the electorate for an alternative to ideological warfare. But the financial onslaught will be difficult for the independent to repel. Pressler has just one full-time staffer and has raised not quite $150,000. He takes calls from reporters on his own cellphone, and his wife handles accounts at campaign headquarters: a small office above a Fuddruckers in a strip mall.

“I’m under attack by both the Republican and the Democratic party and 10 outside PACs, and it’s just impossible to begin to answer all the negatives,” Pressler lamented.

Makes one yearn for the genteel days of ’78.

Twitter: @Milbank

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