Businesses, unions and special interest groups have poured $2.2 million into South Dakota’s U.S. Senate primary races that will be decided in June.
And most of that money has wound up in the campaign coffers of Republican Mike Rounds, the state's former governor. He has raised $1.6 million – more than 10 times the combined total of his three rivals for the Republican primary in the eventual bid for the seat held by Sen. Tim Johnson, who is retiring when his term expires.
Rick Weiland, a Sioux Falls business owner who is running unopposed in Democratic primary, lags far behind with a total of $375,000.
The other Republicans in the race have an even steeper road to travel to compete with the former two-term governor.
State Sen. Larry Rhoden of Union Center has raised just $62,000, with his biggest contributions coming from retirees, teachers, and business people. Annette Bosworth, a Sioux Falls physician, has collected only $50,000, fueled heavily by physicians, dentists and members of the business community. Stace Nelson, who served in the Marines, has raised $47,000, money donated by retirees, farmers and professionals.
Republican candidate Jason Ravnsborg, who entered the race on Monday, has not yet disclosed any campaign finance information.
Round has built his fundraising lead with donations from retirees, commercial banks, insurance companies, securities and investment firms, and Republican senators.
Rounds said many of those contributions come from people he has made connections with over the years when he was governor between 2003 and 2011 and as a current partner in his insurance firm, Fischer, Rounds and Associates.
He added that those sources and other business and advocacy groups he's solicited donations from support his ideals rather than currying political favors.
"I think what happens is more along the lines of people giving you campaign donations because they have a sense of what your basic philosophy is," he said.
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Rounds pointed to contributions from the oil and gas industry as an example. He said he is an outspoken advocate for the industry, including the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, he said his father was a former director of the South Dakota Petroleum Council, so he has connections in the industry.
But although Rounds is significantly outraising his rivals, he has bigger goals: he hopes to raise $9 million by the campaign's end, which would be one of the most well-funded campaigns in the state’s history.
John Thune, R-S.D., tops the list with $19 million raised between 2001 and 2006. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., raised $6.9 million between 1997 to 2002.
Rounds said his big fear is a splurge of negative advertising attacks by "super PACs," a form of independent political organization that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. They were made possible following a series of Supreme Court rulings in recent years and have become an increasingly potent force in American elections, spending $468 billion in last year's presidential election.
"We have to be prepared to basically correct misinformation put out by super PACs should they appear before the primary," he said.
To reach that goal, Rounds said he has been spending a week of every month soliciting donations from outside of South Dakota. So far, about 54 percent of his donations, or $864,000, is from identifiable sources out of state.
Weiland said that Rounds' fundraising goal, and the amount of time he's spending courting out-of-state donors, embodies exactly what's wrong with American politics.
He said it’s clear from the last few decades that campaign finance laws have allowed corporations to empower candidates who are sympathetic to corporate goals at the expense of candidates who support the general public.
"I think big money in politics is by far the most important issue by a huge margin," Weiland said. "Frankly, it's more important than everything else because it affects everything else. In my opinion, it's the most important issue because it determines the outcome of every other issue – every single one.
[Editor's note: Annette Bosworth, a Sioux Falls physician, is a candidate for office. An earlier version of this story had her name incorrect.]