My good friend Rick Weiland is fighting what he probably believes is a spirited "prairie populist" campaign in his bid to capture the open U.S. Senate seat in South Dakota this year. His themes about taking the country back from the rich and powerful interests who control the U.S. government have a certain resonance to them, considering how well-known the big moneyed interests are. No question there's some merit to this approach. But will it win in South Dakota in 2014? I doubt it.
A thematic campaign has its limits. In a teensy-weensy state like South Dakota (where the entire population numbers less than half that of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley), people will respond to big themes to a certain extent, but for folks out here on the northern Plains, it's really more about the individual. Weiland misses that point when he pictures his heavily favored opponent, former Republican Governor Mike Rounds, as a tool for those powerful national and international interests who have an expensively maintained desire to keep Republicans in power in Washington, D.C. That perception is certainly worth running against, but it won't win the election in a state where Republican registrations outnumber Democratic ones by nearly a 4 to 3 margin.
Weiland really needs to make Rounds himself the issue. This came to mind today when I read a piece on one of Rounds' fringe primary opponents, a badly underfinanced gadfly-esque state rep name Stace Nelson, whose lack of money is somewhat offset by his blustery nature and provocative pronouncements in terms of getting him media space. Rick Weiland could use a bit of education from Nelson when it comes to learning how to characterize the opposition in this little state where personal contact and impressions are paramount. A useful contrast is their respective approaches to the EB-5/Northern Beef Processing plant, the fiasco that for the most part occurred during Rounds' administration as Governor. Here's what Nelson had to say about it in this morning's Rapid City Journal. One choice tidbit? "We are witnessing corruption in South Dakota that is akin to Third World country corruption. We had politicians that happily sold out the state of South Dakota to get access to communist Chinese money. The Rounds people knew about this, they didn't tell people it was ongoing." Nothing wishy-washy or equivocal about how Nelson sees the fiasco and Mike Rounds' connection to it.
But as to Rick Weiland's approach to the issue? Here's Rick's grasp at some of the lowest hanging political fruit I've ever seen. In an interview with the RCJ a couple of weeks ago, Weiland was tossed the same EB-5 softball that Nelson pounded out of the park. Rick's response: "It's very serious. It's being investigated and I think we need to let the investigations run their course."
"It's very serious." It's very serious. Seriously? It's very serious? Can your followers give you a great big "duh" on that one, Rick? Of course it's serious. That's why it's being investigated. But there's more to it, as Nelson understands, than just the matters under investigation and they're fair game to bring into the political discussion. Rounds himself is the issue and a vigorous discussion about his role and the management style that made this happen needs to be a part of the campaign. And this isn't just about the political value to Rick's endeavor, much as I think his campaign will stand to gain a lot from it. This is also about getting former Governor Rounds to explain just exactly how all this could have occurred on his watch.