Despite the tens of thousands of miles it's logged, the blue Chrysler Town and Country ferrying around U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland doesn't look too beat up.
There's mud around the wheel wells, of course, but both car and candidate seem to be holding up fine in the quest to win the trust of South Dakota's voters.
Weiland, a Democratic candidate hoping to succeed retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, is staking much of his campaign on making stops in all 311 of South Dakota's incorporated towns. On Thursday night, the minivan rolled into the 300th town, Pine Ridge (pop. 3,710) for a town hall, as well as Oelrichs (pop. 204).
Weiland is betting that he can follow in the footsteps of George McGovern and Tom Daschle, who climbed into their vehicles and set out across the highways and county roads in search of South Dakota's far-flung voters.
Can sharing coffee in out-of-the-way cafes and gas stations still elect a Democrat in a state that seems to continue to trend Republican?
The jury is still out, but at a town hall meeting Friday in Rapid City, Weiland tells folks he's optimistic.
"South Dakota is a retail politics state," he tells a crowd of about 40 that is smooshed into a meeting room downtown in Seattle's Best Coffee.
A political career
Born in the late 1950s to a family in Madison, Weiland grew up lending a hand at his father's funeral chapel: being there for prayer services, helping prepare the funeral, driving the hearse.
Weiland's father, Donald, was a county coroner in Lake County in the 1950s, a Democrat in a conservative area at the time. Donald Weiland knocked on all his own doors to get that job.
Weiland graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1980 with a double major in communications and political science. He volunteered for Tom Daschle's 1978 congressional campaign and later worked for Daschle as a regional and state director, and eventually as a senior adviser.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Weiland to be a regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2002, Weiland spent a year as state director for the AARP. In 2003, he joined the International Code Council, an association that works to set building and construction safety standards. He became the chief executive officer of the ICC in 2006 and stayed there through 2012.
Bill Dupler, board president of the ICC, describes Weiland as effective at working to get the non-profit's priorities pushed through in the political realm.
"He has pretty thorough knowledge of what it takes to make things happen in that environment," Dupler said over the phone from Virginia.
Since 2009, Weiland and his wife, Stacy Newcomb Weiland, have co-owned Parker's Bistro, a small, upscale restaurant serving a seasonal menu.
Weiland's first foray into politics, however, was decidedly unsuccessful. In 1996, he ran for the U.S. House seat against another former political staffer, John Thune. Thune bested Weiland by 20 points, winning 57 percent to Weiland's 37 percent. In 2004, Thune eked out a win against Daschle, unseating the Senate minority leader by fewer than 5,000 votes.
On the road
This time around, Weiland is hoping for better. At his town hall in Rapid City, Weiland tells folksy stories about meeting residents in Virgil (pop. 9), Viborg (pop. 925) and Montrose (pop. 543).
He talks about getting rid of the parts of Obamacare that don't work, and keeping the parts that do: the requirement that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions, allowing young people to stay on their parents' coverage up to the age of 26. And he wants to add an option where Americans can buy into the federal government's Medicare health insurance program.
He expresses confidence that the South Dakota ballot measure to raise the minimum wage will pass in November and give 62,000 South Dakotans "a raise."
Weiland travels with a copy of a Vernell Johnson book titled "South Dakota: Every Town on the Map and More: a Pictorial History." When he's not pressing the flesh, Weiland will look around to see whether the old buildings in the book still exist.
Craig Lawrence, chairman of the South Dakota GOP, applauds Weiland's journeys to South Dakota's smaller towns. But he doesn't think it will change the dynamic of the race. Weiland must still contend with one of a slate of Republican candidates vying for the nomination, including former Gov. Mike Rounds.
"In this case, the Republican candidates are so strong," Lawrence said Friday over the phone. "I think it's great to go to small town cafes, but in the end a Republican is going to prevail."
Lawrence points out that Weiland doesn't even have the financial backing of the national Democratic Party. It appears that those resources will be tied up defending vulnerable Democratic senators in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina and open seats in Iowa and Montana.
Against the "big"
Listen to Weiland speak long enough, and you'll hear about a lot of bad "big" things. Big Money muscling common sense out of the healthcare debate in 2008. Big Oil trying to push out the ethanol industry. Big Agriculture and its support of genetically modified foods.
If you turn over one of the business cards Weiland hands out, you'll even get the text of an amendment to the Constitution he wants to see passed. It reads:
"So that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of the few, shall direct the course of this Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections ..."
When asked about Rounds, the likely Republican nominee, Weiland says he's made overtures, without success, to engage in a public debate. And Weiland calls out Rounds for not having made many public appearances.
"I wish he would join me in this effort and get out there and have this conversation," Weiland said Friday at the Journal office. "I can't seem to get him to engage."
Mitch Krebs, Rounds' spokesman, noted that candidates haven't even finished picking up petition signatures to get on the November ballot.
"When the ballot is set, we'll start talking about debates," Krebs said.
Talking and talking
At the Rapid City town hall, the Weiland campaign, driven by young campaign staffers passing around clipboards with ballot petitions, picked up a few more signatures.
But Weiland was already looking ahead to Saturday's town hall meeting in Custer (pop. 2,346) and stops in Edgemont (916), Hot Springs (pop. 3,655), Hermosa (pop. 332), Buffalo Gap (pop. 117) and Fairburn (pop. 60).
In the meantime, he tells the Rapid City crowd he's going to step up his effort and knock on doors in South Dakota's unincorporated towns.
"I've learned now in my travels that sometimes there are more people living in unincorporated towns," he told the crowd in Rapid City, "than in incorporated towns."