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Could South Dakota's bizarre Senate race be Democrats' best hope?

Scott Olson / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Lately, Democrats have gotten mostly bad news in the battle for the Senate. New polls have looked grim in key states like Iowa, Colorado, and Alaska, and Vox's average of the six election forecasting models now shows that the GOP has a 64 percent chance of taking the chamber — its highest yet.

Yet Democrats got some new hope this week from the bizarre Senate race in South Dakota they had long thought lost. A poll released Tuesday showed a very close race. Of course, that's just one poll — but the sense the race was tightening was bolstered on Wednesday, when Mark Halperin and Michael Bender of Bloomberg Politics reported that the Democratic Party's chief Senate campaign arm would invest $1 million. Here's why some people suddenly think South Dakota might be the Democrats' Hail Mary hope of holding the Senate.

The GOP nominee has recently been tarnished by a scandal

Governor Mike Rounds

Former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds. (Mike Rounds for Senate)

In recent weeks, South Dakota headlines have been dominated by news about a scandal involving the administration of former Governor Mike Rounds — the GOP Senate nominee. The scandal, which has been simmering for some time, involves the state's administration of funds for the federal EB-5 program, which provides green cards for immigrants who invest $500,000 or more in American businesses.

The scandal's details are complex (here's a roundup of key stories from the Argus Leader's David Montgomery) but some Rounds appointees have been implicated in mismanaging contracts and funds involved in the privatization of the program. One actually committed suicide shortly before he was to be indicted for embezzling half a million dollars.

Additionally, the very concept of EB-5 — giving green cards to immigrants who spend a lot of money in your area — sounds shady to many. Ann Lee of Demos wrote in 2012 that the federal program was "rife with fraud and corruption," though some reforms have been made since then.

So Rounds has been hammered by ads on the scandal by an outside group of campaign finance reformers who've attempted to dub it "The Mike Rounds citizenship-for-sale scheme," though that's a stretch. The scandal and the ads appear to have taken a toll, with Rounds' support in the multi-candidate race falling below 40 percent in several recent polls. Though no poll has yet found Rounds behind, outside groups of campaign finance reformers are investing millions more to attack him, and now the DSCC is jumping in, hoping to drive Rounds' numbers down more.

But independent candidates are complicating the race

Larry Pressler

Larry Pressler. (Amy Sussman / Getty Entertainment)

The Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland, a one-time aide to former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, wants to capitalize on Rounds' decline. But the race has been complicated by the presence of an independent who's been drawing increasing shares of the vote in recent polls. That's Larry Pressler, who actually held this very Senate seat from 1979 to 1997, and has decided to take a shot at a fourth term at the age of 71. He has raised an extraordinarily small amount of money — relying mostly on a $200,000 loan to himself to fund his campaign — and has pledged that if he wins, he'll only serve one term so he won't have to spend any time fundraising for another bid. (During his Senate career, Pressler famously turned down a bribe offered by an undercover FBI agent in the Abscam operation, later dramatized in the film American Hustle. "He was one of the few officials approached who rejected a bribe outright," Politifact's Louis Jacobson writes.)

Pressler is a former Republican who's now running as an independent, and he will not commit to caucusing with either party. Yet he calls himself "a personal friend of Obama's" and voted for the president twice, though he said it was for "conservative reasons" (he thought the GOP was too pro-war). He believes humans are contributing to climate change, has voiced support for tax increases as part of a deficit deal, and backs gay marriage. On abortion, he is somewhat more conservative — he wants Roe v. Wade overturned so the states can decide on restrictions, but says that while he personally believes life begins soon after conception, he thinks pregnant women should have some flexibility. And on Obamacare, he says he would have voted no but now wants to help fix it because it's "here to stay."

In recent polls, it's Pressler, rather than the Democratic nominee Weiland, who's benefited the most from Rounds' decline. The most recent poll showed Rounds with 35 percent, Pressler very close behind with 32 percent, and Weiland at 28 percent. Republicans believe Pressler is only gaining because voters remember him as a conservative and don't know of his newer, more liberal views — and the GOP will likely run many new ads making just this point.

Weiland's camp, too, is concerned that Pressler will either win or deliver the race to Rounds by drawing too much liberal and moderate support from Weiland. So a liberal group of campaign finance reformers, Every Voice Action, prefers Weiland and will run its own negative ads against Pressler. But the DSCC advertising will reportedly focus on attacking Rounds — Halperin and Bender report that "Democrats believe they will keep the seat in their party's hands if either Weiland or Pressler prevails."

If all this wasn't complicated enough, there's actually a fourth candidate in the race — former GOP state senator Gordon Howie, who's running as an independent but, unlike Pressler, is clearly a conservative, and therefore likely to draw votes from Rounds.

Weird things can happen in a multi-candidate race

No one knows what the net result of the millions in new ad spending flying around — ads are quite cheap in South Dakota compared to many other markets with competitive Senate races — will be. Repeated emphasis on the EB-5 scandal could weaken Rounds further, or Pressler or Weiland could collapse under the weight of negative attacks they haven't yet been exposed to. (Neither seems to have any intention of dropping out, and the deadline to remove your name from the ballot has already passed, anyway.)

But the late investment of $1 million from the Democrats is a serious sign that the party thinks it has at least some chance here. If Rounds, Weiland, and Pressler all manage to draw significant support, and Howie gets a couple of points, it's quite possible that some candidate will emerge triumphant with around 35 percent of the vote or even less — and determine which party controls the Senate.

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