Rounds facing conservative doubt in Senate bid

Argusleader.com is down right now, so I’m reposting here my Sunday story about the Republican side of the developing 2014 Senate picture.

The basic thrust is expansion on things I’ve hinted at in prior stories: that Mike Rounds isn’t beloved by some conservative activists, who are hoping he faces a primary. Rounds tells me he expects a primary, and defends both his approach and his record against this criticism.

An interesting side-note that I didn’t get a chance to fully flesh out is that Rounds is facing much more skepticism from fiscal conservatives than he is from social conservatives. People I talked to for whom abortion is a primary issue were generally pretty supportive of Rounds, or at least neutral, while activists for whom taxes and spending and the size of government is the primary issue were more critical. (This is an interesting reversal of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s position, who has taken a hard line on fiscal matters and spent less political capital on social issues — and who drew fire last year for endorsing several fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican lawmakers. Daugaard and Rounds remain extremely close allies despite this contrast, with Daugaard endorsing Rounds for Senate.)

Here’s the story, after the jump:

Mike Rounds says he doesn’t plan on voting to raise taxes if elected to the Senate.

But he won’t promise not to do it. And for Matt Hoskins, that’s a problem.

"We asked him a series of policy questions, things like, ‘Will you pledge to oppose tax increases?’ He said ‘No, I won’t take pledges,’" said Hoskins, the leader of a national activist group, the Senate Conservatives Fund. "On earmarks, and on bailouts, on every policy issue you can imagine, he just consistently said ‘No, no, no, I won’t make any of those pledges.’"

Hoskins isn’t from South Dakota. But he’s promised to redirect money to support a more conservative primary challenger to Rounds, a former two-term governor — and a number of South Dakotans share his belief that Rounds is too moderate.

"There are a lot of people that are discouraged, in a sense, from the way Gov. Rounds spent his time in Pierre," said state Rep. Manny Steele, R-Sioux Falls.

Several Republicans have said they’re considering a run for Senate against Rounds, including state Sen. Larry Rhoden, former lawmaker Bill Napoli, and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby. And the most prominent potential challenger, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, has refused to rule out a run.

But Rounds says he expects a primary and isn’t going to change what he calls a “pragmatic” approach to lawmaking.

"While we may know how we would feel about a particular issue right now, when things change, when circumstances change, a good legislator or congressperson should have the ability to reconsider their own position on an issue," said Rounds.

Making promises “sounds easy,” Rounds said. But he said it’s bad for government, especially when the pledge is to a specific group.

"You’ll have all sorts of very specific special interest groups that will be in trying to… put themselves in a position to be able to demand accountability for their pledges for years to come," he said. "I don’t think that’s necessarily good for the voters in South Dakota."

Hoskins said if candidates oppose something, they shouldn’t be afraid to promise not to vote for it.

"(Rounds) refused to rule out all kinds of bad policies because he doesn’t believe in making any specific pledges as part of his campaign," Hoskins said.

Rounds disagreed.

"You can discuss your basic principles… You can talk about your basic philosophy of keeping taxes low," Rounds said. "But when it comes time to decide whether a particular piece of legislation is good legislation or bad legislation may very well depend on the circumstances at hand."

The most famous political pledge is the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” from the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, a promise to oppose all efforts to increase the federal income tax rates or eliminate tax deductions in a way that raises tax revenue. All but six Republican U.S. Senators have signed it, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Noem is among 219 House members to sign the pledge.

Rounds has refused to sign that pledge his entire political career.

"That doesn’t mean that I raised taxes," he said. "We still have the second-lowest taxes per capita of any state in the nation, and we’d be the lowest except that the citizens decided to have a major tax increase on cigarettes."

Not all conservatives share Rounds’ praise for his gubernatorial record.

"I’ve heard other conservatives talking, and would tend to agree, Mr. Rounds has a pretty good spending history — he likes to build government and likes to spend money," said Mike Mueller, president of South Dakota Citizens for Liberty, a Rapid City-based tea party group. "I’m not sure we need any more of that in Washington, D.C."

Steele faulted Rounds for his budget policy, especially his final budget proposal, which relied partly on reserves to cover a projected $127 million structural deficit. Rounds’ successor, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, later passed a budget that eliminated that entire projected deficit through cuts.

"We have that same (deficit) problem on the federal level," Steele said. "Is he going to address that on the federal level, or is he just going to go along with it like he did in the state?"

Rounds had a different take.

"I think our results speak for ourselves," he said. "Our unemployment remained well below the national average. We had $1 million more in our reserve accounts when I left office than when I started."

If elected to the Senate, he said he’d pursue “conservative good government.”

"I firmly believe in the free enterprise systgem, and I firmly believe that a conservative approach to government is the appropriate approach," Rounds said. "At the federal level, that’s what we need now: a very conservative approach to government intervention in people’s private lives."

With more than a year to go before Republicans pick a Senate candidate, Rounds is the only person in the race so far. That means the choice for Republicans is Rounds or someone else — and “someone else” has appeal.

"Some have concerns about his fiscal restraint. He wasn’t the most conservative on that issue," said Allen Unruh, a Sioux Falls conservative activist. "They’re concerned that we need more boldness in office to take on what’s happening right now. Maybe he would step up to the plate."

But Unruh said he’s got other concerns than finding the purest conservative candidate.

"I’m telling people we’ve got to back off and look at the big picture," he said. "We have to make sure we defeat whoever runs on the Democratic side."

Even Rounds’ critics say there’s things about him they appreciate.

"Rounds is strongly pro-life," said Steele. "He gets along very well with people… He’s just flat likable."

It’s unclear how many Republicans are opposed to Rounds, but there’s a core of activists who are looking for alternatives.

"My sense is it’s 10 to 15 percent who are going to vote against Mike Rounds, no matter who (his Republican opponent) is," said Joel Rosenthal, a former chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party.

That matches up with the race’s only public poll, from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling. That poll, conducted last month, found 67 percent of Republicans approve of Rounds, while 17 percent disapproved. The rest didn’t have a firm opinion.

The right candidate could get far more than 17 percent. Noem, Rosenthal said, could give Rounds a run for his money.

"She has her own constituency she’s built up," he said. "She’s got more connections to raise money in Washington."

PPP’s poll showed a dead heat between Rounds and Noem among Republican voters, with Rounds slightly ahead.

The focus now is on candidate recruitment, as activists and interest groups opposed to Rounds try to find someone willing to make a run.

Rounds expects someone to run against him.

"No question about it," he said. "But you go in knowing that. Every Senate seat is very important across the country."

It’s unclear when potential candidates will start making decisions, but once they do, Unruh predicted Republicans currently on the sidelines won’t wait long to make up their minds.

"(When) we know who’s going to step up to plate, that’s when people are gohing to align themselves," he said. "It all depends on who has the financial backing, and who has the name ID, and people will align themselves very rapidly."