Search for Anti-Mike Rounds Continues in South Dakota

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 13, 2013 · 9:33 AM EDT

Conservative groups are on the record with their distrust and distaste for former Gov. Mike Rounds in South Dakota, but efforts to find an alternative for the Senate race have come up short so far.

Rounds is the front-runner for the GOP nomination. He’s also the only Republican running for Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s open seat.

But some Republicans in Washington, D.C., doubt Rounds’ conservative credentials. And some Republicans in the Mount Rushmore State have never viewed him as a political heavyweight, after he squeaked through his initial gubernatorial primary.

The Democratic scenario to hold this seat seems to rely on a three-pronged scenario: a messy Republican primary, an unelectable GOP nominee and a quality Democratic candidate. But it’s possible that none of those scenarios comes to fruition.

At-Large Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., was immediately and consistently mentioned as the anti-Rounds because it was assume that she was acceptably conservative, because she was elected in 2010. But Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller threw some cold water on her hypothetical candidacy.

“Neither Mike Rounds nor Kristi Noem are fiscal conservatives, and the Club for Growth PAC will not support either candidate,” Keller said. “We are watching South Dakota’s Senate race to see if a pro-growth candidate emerges.”

Senate Conservatives Fund’s Matt Hoskins sang out of the same hymnal.

“Mike Rounds has a very liberal record and he doesn’t represent the values of most South Dakotans,” Hoskins told CQ Roll Call. “Our grass-roots members in the state have asked us to help them find a conservative alternative, and that’s what we’re working to do.

“We’ve looked at Kristi Noem’s record but, unfortunately, we won’t be able to support her if she decides to run. Her votes to raise the debt limit and to increase taxes as part of the fiscal cliff deal make it all but impossible for our members to back her campaign,” added Hoskins, who said Noem’s vote for the farm bill was the final straw.

That doesn’t mean she couldn't win, particularly because she remains popular in the state. But she announced on Tuesday that she would seek re-election and pass on a Senate race.

One potential candidate, Dr. Annette Bosworth, emerged last week when South Dakota War College, a conservative blog in the state, noticed some unusual online activity. But her clumsy rollout strategy (which apparently involved her intern changing her Wikipedia page) demonstrates that she might not be the dream candidate conservatives are looking for (via South Dakota Politics in Stereo).

“Annette Bosworth is a complete unknown. She’s coming off the bleachers and running as an outsider with no infrastructure,” Hoskins said. “She has a very steep hill to climb, but voters are looking for new faces and stranger things have happened.” Bosworth has yet to meet with officials at the Club for Growth or the Senate Conservatives Fund.

According to SDWC, state Rep. Stace Nelson has deferred to another conservative potentially in the race: former state Rep. Mark Venner. The blog found that someone registered on May 28. Other candidates could still surface.

Meanwhile, Rounds is raising money and building his campaign team. His first quarter fundraising ($183,000 raised) and March 31 total ($369,000 in cash on hand) might be good by South Dakota standards, but those figures are slightly underwhelming for a former governor in an open seat Senate race.

Even though Rounds will have at least a six month head-start on a potential opponent, his detractors are encouraged by the fact that television advertising in South Dakota is cheap. And Sen. Ted Cruz’s GOP nomination in Texas last year against a wealthy establishment candidate in a very expensive state provides inspiration for conservatives.

But Cruz started his campaign earlier (in January 2011) and had the advantage of a runoff. Cruz finished second, 44 percent to 34 percent, in the initial May 29 primary and prevailed, 57 percent to 43 percent, in the July 31 runoff. The 2014 GOP primary in South Dakota is likely to be held next June.

It looks like Democrats won’t have a primary but could be left with former House candidate Rick Weiland, who has the support of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle but who Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said was “not my choice.”

The Rothenberg Political Report currently rates the race as Lean Republican.