Former Gov. Mike Rounds is prepared to spend up to $9 million in his U.S. Senate campaign, with a good chunk of it likely to be used to fend off attacks from hard-right conservatives in an expected Republican primary.
Rounds, who is seen by some conservatives as too moderate on taxes and size-of-government issues, argues that his conservative credentials are strong. And he believes the core of Republican conservatives in South Dakota support his campaign.
"The vast majority of conservatives in the South Dakota Republican Party are in our camp right now," Rounds said during a stop in Rapid City last week.
He refers to some of his critics on the conservative side as "professional dissenters. Their claim to fame is dissention."
Whatever he calls his critics, Rounds expects to be challenged in the primary by a candidate or candidates who will benefit from outside money attacking the former governor and his record. That will be repeated in the general election, he said.
“We’ll get hit from the special-interests groups,” Rounds said. “We’re prepared for that. And we’re prepared to respond.”
If a primary challenge develops as expected, it could define a Republican Party in South Dakota that has thrown off ultra-conservative splinter factions who don't consider Rounds to be one of them.
Those factions are considered long shots to carry a primary against a formidable party leader like Rounds. Nonetheless, he prepares for them with good reason, according to political science professor Jon Schaff from Northern State University in Aberdeen.
Schaff said a challenge from an effective conservative candidate could coalesce right-wing factions and attract meaningful support from national conservative groups.
"It seems pretty clear to me that at least some people are sniffing around to see if some outside money will come in and run an insurgency candidate against Mike Rounds," Schaff said. "I suspect he's more worried about a primary run than he is about the general election."
Rounds has reason to worry, said state Rep. Stace Nelson, a Republican from Fulton and a frequent critic of Rounds, current Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the Republican establishment.
Nelson rejects Rounds' contention that the former governor has strong support from conservatives.
"I can't name one real conservative in the state of South Dakota who is in Rounds' camp," Nelson said. "He's trying to recreate himself."
Nelson said Rounds had "an atrocious record" while governor, allowing government to expand, ballooning a structural budget deficit that topped $100 million and readily relying on federal stimulus dollars that conservatives abhorred.
"The fact that he needs $9 million to run in South Dakota should tell you that he knows his record is poor and he needs all that money to distract South Dakotans from his record," Nelson said.
Nelson hasn't yet decided if he will run for the U.S. Senate, but he is considering it. He said he has been contacted by the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund.
Schaff said a candidate like Nelson might energize conservatives and attract substantial support from out-of-state groups.
"I'd say Stace Nelson has a better chance of beating Mike Rounds than Rick Weiland (the announced Democratic candidate) does," Schaff said.
But it will be difficult for any second- or third-tier Republican candidates to upset Rounds in a primary. The popular former state Senate leader who went on to serve two terms as governor maintained high approval ratings while in office.
And he still ranks high in likability among South Dakota voters, said Bob Burns, a professor emeritus in political science from South Dakota State University in Brookings.
Rounds' refusal to sign pledges saying he would never support tax increase might rankle the hard right but it wins support as common-sense philosophy with voters overall, Burns said.
"It looks more and more like Rounds will win the Republican nomination and Rick Weiland will win the Democratic nomination, and the two will meet in the general," he said.
Weiland is a Sioux Falls businessman who lost in runs for the U.S. House in 1996 and 2002. He is the only Democrat to have announced for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who decided not to run for a fourth Senate term in 2014.
Weiland is considered to be a pronounced underdog against Rounds. An expensive, bristly Republican primary could only help the seemingly outmatched Democrat, although Weiland refuses to focus on that.
"Conventional wisdom is a GOP primary would help our campaign, but that is beyond our control," Weiland said in a comment emailed by his campaign staff. "What’s in our control is telling as many South Dakotans as possible that I don’t like $9 million campaigns. Nine-million-dollar campaigns are the reason our country has been hijacked by big money special interests."
Not long after Rounds announced his $9-million fundraising goal, Weiland issued a news release asking him to agree to limit individual contributions to $100. Rounds has rejected that, saying he is following a fundraising plan developed months ago when it was still possible that Tim Johnson would run for re-election.
Other possible candidates who decided not to run for the Senate were U.S. Rep. Noem, who was consider a formidable challenger for Rounds, former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Democratic U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the senator's son.
Any of them would have added to campaign costs. So will a primary with a conservative candidate, if it attracts attack advertisements from outside groups. And the same thing could occur during the general election, where independent political action committees using muscle that was increased by federal court rulings can spend unlimited amounts of money for or against a candidate.
Rounds said the advent of these Super PACs makes it all the more important for him to have campaign funding to respond to what he calls distortions and attacks. He expects that in both a primary and the general election.
"It's not the other candidates that raise all the money. It's these Super PACs that come in," Rounds said. "We will focus on our story and our message, but we must be able to respond to false information and peg those responsible for it, too."
Schaff said enough moderate congressional members have been defeated or threatened in primaries in recent years to make Rounds pay attention. The fact that primaries tend to have lower voter turnout, which can be strongly affected by voters with the most passionate ideology, is also a risk Rounds must consider, Schaff said.
But more than one primary challenger from the hard right would split the hard-right vote and weaken the impact of all, he said.
"If the people in that wing of the party are serious, then they better settle on somebody," Schaff said. "Because if they've got three people running, Mike Rounds wins for sure. One person with a lot of focus and some outside money might make something happen."