Journal illustration by Taylor Kenkel

This should be a joyful time for Republicans in South Dakota.

For the first time in decades, the party could own both South Dakota seats in the U.S. Congress; rule the governor's office; and control both chambers in the state legislature with an iron-clad majority.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Rushmore State seem more and more marginalized, and their candidacies increasingly carry the look of a long-shot.

"Everything seems to be shaping up for a big Republican year," Ken Blanchard, a political science professor at Northern State University, said last week. "I think the Republican Party will win the Senate this year."

But despite that sense of inevitability, the primary race for an open U.S. Senate seat, in particular, has revealed a fissure in the normally unified Republican Party.

Four of the five primary candidates seeking to replace retiring Democrat Tim Johnson are jockeying in debates and on the campaign trail for the apparently coveted title of "Most Conservative Candidate."

Along the way, they are brutally attacking one another but especially the clear front-runner in the race, former Gov. Mike Rounds, by painting him as a moderate and a career politician and not a "true conservative."

Along the way, the pressure appears to be building for anyone who represents the state of South Dakota in any form or fashion to be increasingly conservative at a time when many observers feel that any hope for bipartisanship in politics is slowly being snuffed out.

A race to the right

Rounds is a former two-term South Dakota governor and longtime state lawmaker who has never lost a statewide race. As of March 31, he reported raising $2.9 million, more than the other four primary candidates combined.

Like his primary opponents, the 59-year-old businessman says he opposes the Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare, is pro-life and anti-gun control, and wants to rein in federal bureaucrats and the unbalanced budget.

Rounds' most frequently broadcast campaign ad so far says that if elected he will bring “conservative South Dakota common sense” to the nation’s capital. It all adds up to this being his race to lose on June 3.

But in a red state like South Dakota, where Tea Party and Liberty Party supporters are a small yet determined lot, and where turnout for the primary election might be light, the former governor must establish his conservative credentials, according to the author of the blog Smart Politics.

"Just not being a Democrat is not enough to get elected," said Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "It’s a conservative Republican state and that is extremely important in branding."

The thought of Rounds touting himself as a true conservative infuriates West River Republicans like Bill Napoli, a former state lawmaker who presides at weekly meetings in Rapid City of a small group that calls itself The Wingnuts, or the South Dakota Conservatives.

"In his entire career in the Legislature, Rounds was never a conservative, and I can't believe he has the guts to say he is conservative," said Napoli, who considers the current Legislature to be "Republican light."

The candidate who seems to have captured the fancy of the most conservative element of party is state Rep. Stace Nelson, an East River resident who spent 13 years in the Marine Corps before becoming a state legislator known for his combative approach.

The 47-year-old state representative from Fulton runs his campaign with the intensity of a forced march and takes dead aim at Rounds, whom he describes as a “chameleon conservative," a “coward” for avoiding debates and a corrupt governor for establishing the EB-5 program that is now under federal investigation.

"Mike Rounds is the polar opposite of myself; he’s no conservative," said Nelson, who accuses him of being a "moderate squishy Republican like Lindsey Graham" of South Carolina who is fending off his own challenge this year.

Rounds dismisses those charges, saying those same voters who elected him governor know what they are getting if they support him.

“I’ve been in the public spotlight,” he said. “People in South Dakota know me. They don’t believe the misinformation out there."

Nonetheless, Rounds is working to highlight conservative credentials. In addition to his TV ad, his website features a digital petition seeking signatures to protect gun rights.

Other than that, however, it is thin on the issues, according to Ostermeier.

“Rounds has clearly been running this campaign on his name and record,” he said. “But he’s also the only candidate of the five Republicans who doesn’t have an issue page on his website. He is not willing to pin himself down on the issues.”

A testy campaign

His opponents' websites, meanwhile, champion conservatives causes, warn voters of eminent disaster if Democratic policies are enacted, and vilify the president.

Meade County rancher Larry Rhoden, 55, touts himself as a “bold conservative” whose platform focuses on family values, gun rights, immigration reform, balancing the budget and opposing Obama on every front.

The Union Center man's newest campaign ad is called "Obama's Bull," which stresses the "need to combat Obama's liberal assault on America."

"In general, the message I hear all across the state is how terrible the current administration is from Obamacare to his judicial nominees to his foreign policy," Rhoden said last week. 

The state senator also pointed to his experience as a Republican leader in the Legislature when making his case as the true conservative in the race.

“My track record shows that I am more conservative than Mike Rounds,” Rhoden said. “Being a former governor is an executive position and that requires a different skill set (than a lawmaker).”

But even though Rhoden has represented one of the most conservative districts in the state, he can't escape the wrath of Nelson and others on the right.

"Rhoden was a 21-year liberal Democrat," Nelson said. "I have no respect for political opportunists."

Rhoden, who says he does not like to respond to those who "throw mud," is quick to give it back when he hears that characterization.

"I think it’s laughable," he said. "After two years in the House, I was elected to a leadership position. I've received an A-plus from the NRA and introduced bills to hold the line on taxes. He (Nelson) has no record showing anything accomplished in four years in the Legislature."

Rhoden does acknowledge switching parties but says his original decision was one of youthful innocence.

"I like to say I was Democrat by birth and Republican by choice," he said.

Less experience, but much gusto

The other two candidates in the primary race are political novices who are already showing a talent for rhetoric, and who are pushing the race to the right in the primary.

Annette Bosworth is a 42-year-old Sioux Falls physician who has reported raising $1.1 million as of March 31 with most of the donations coming from small contributions, she said Friday.

Bosworth describes her campaign as a crusade against the political establishment and government overreach and destruction, which she herself has experienced and as a result motivated her to jump into the thorny thicket of the 2014 race.

The native of Plankinton also disputes Rounds' claim that he will fight to reduce the size of government and regulations.

"He can say those things, but he’s the one who brought in the over-regulation of Obamacare and the excessive regulation of what is now Common Core," Bosworth said. "He gets lots of lobbyist money. He is bought and paid for; that is the problem with career politicians like him."

The fifth GOP Senate candidate is Yankton attorney Jason Ravnsborg, the last to enter the race. He is a major in the Army Reserve who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and has received the endorsement of TeaPartyCommunity.com.

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In making that endorsement, the organization's co-founder Ken Crow seemed to be taking a shot at Rounds and Nelson when he said "too many candidates today like to 'call' themselves Tea Party or conservative in order to 'just' win the hearts and minds of the some 25 million Tea Party members across America. In reality, they are nothing more than just bomb-throwers or moderates trying to appear conservative."

Ravnsborg has also been a party to one of the stranger incidents in the campaign. At a recent Lincoln Day dinner at Cedar Shores, Nelson was accused of taking pictures of the car Ravnsborg arrived in that had Minnesota plates.

The incident was first reported on a blog written by a Democrat. According to a Republican blogger, Nelson did not deny taking the pictures and emailing them to others since he wanted to dispute Ravnsborg's claim that he is a lifelong South Dakotan.

The more the merrier?

Ostermeier, the political blogger, said the sheer number of candidates and the high stakes in this year's race explain to a degree the feisty rhetoric and actions of the candidates.

In a field this large, he said, they must find a way to separate themselve, and there is only one direction to go in this race — further and further right.

"In order to get the voters' attention, the candidates are pushing further to the right to stand out," Ostermeier said.

Ostermeier added that the lack of name recognition for the only Democratic candidate in the race, Sioux Falls businessman Rick Weiland, pushes the race even further to the right.

"The center shifts to the right more-so now than if Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin or Tim Johnson were running," he said of two more prominent South Dakota Democrats.

NSU professor Blanchard points to a "very weak Democratic Party whose fortunes have plunged in recent decades," as well as Rounds' popularity and name recognition as governor as reasons his primary opponents need to find ways to distinguish themselves.

"If you want to have a chance against Rounds, you have to find out what his weakness is and exploit that," Blanchard said. "And if he has a weakness, it's that he's not a strong ideological conservative."

But a changing political landscape, historical trends and President Obama add fuel to the race to the right with the winner being the heavy favorite to replace Johnson, according to Blanchard.

Mid-term elections are often a referendum on the president's performance and that does not bode well for Democrats, he said, while adding that recent research shows that mid-term voters "tend to be older, whiter and more Republican than in presidential elections."

Are we more conservative?

It's tough to know whether the conservative candidates for U.S. Senate are as representative of the state's population as they claim.

According to voter registration totals from 1970 to 2012, South Dakota has seen an increase of 61,500 Republicans, 60,700 independents and other political affiliations, and 55,400 Democrats.

As of July 1, the state has 245,017 registered Republicans, 189,773 Democrats and 99,178 independents and 1,614 in other parties. Yet, the state Legislature is dominated by Republicans, and Democrats have difficulty finding a full slate of candidates for state offices.

Beyond the numbers, however, it's clear the state's Republican Party has become much more conservative in recent years, according to one former politician.

Scott Heidepriem was a Republican when he was defeated in a U.S. House primary election in 1986. Two decades later, he was the Democratic nominee for governor when he was defeated by incumbent Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

The Sioux Falls attorney who now runs in marathons rather than for political office said he left the GOP in 2001 after it went so "far to the right on a whole range of issues."

He said he now wonders how long "rank-and-file Republicans will continue to be tolerant" of the drift to the right.

Ostermeier said while South Dakota is clearly a red state, it's difficult to say whether the conservative candidates are following a long-term winning strategy with their race to the right.

"It's consistently been a red state, but the shade of red is not as deep as many other states," he said. "We'll find out later if the tone and policy being advocated by the candidates is aligned to voter preferences."

Contact Patrick Butler at 394-8434 or at patrick.butler@rapidcityjournal.com.

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