Strategists for the tea party group Tea Party Express spent several days in South Dakota this week interviewing possible Senate candidates as they weigh possible involvement in the Republican primary.
So far Mike Rounds is the only declared candidate, and unlike the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express is considering backing the former governor.
"He’s the front-runner at this point, so he’d be high on our list to talk to," said Sal Russo, the group’s chief strategist. "We haven’t made any judgments at this point."
But Russo and his team interviewed several other potential candidates, including state Rep. Stace Nelson, who reported speaking to the group in an in-depth 90-minute discussion.
Russo said his group is solely concerned with fiscal conservatism, not social issues or foreign policy. It’s on fiscal issues where Rounds has drawn most of his criticism from conservative activists.
The group is a political action committee subject to campaign finance limits, so it doesn’t have the potential to make a huge splash like some of the new, post-Citizen United Super PACs and 501(c)4 groups. Russo said it would help arrange bus tours and rallies to boost whichever candidate it supports, and consider making independent expenditures such as TV ads or postcard campaigns.
With multiple outside conservative groups now eyeing South Dakota’s primary, it’s possible that the groups could end up backing different horses. That happened last year in states like Nebraska and Missouri. In the latter state, Tea Party Express backed former treasurer Sarah Steelman over eventual primary winner Todd Akin.
"We thought she was a far superior candidate to Todd Akin," Russo said. "Few would disagree with us today."
Russo said that might happen this year, but predicted less infighting among conservative activists than 2012.
"I think generally people are committed to winning the Senate, so I don’t think there’s going to be too much," said Russo. Compared to some past years, he said, there’s less interest in "impossible-to-win candidates."
Tea Party Express will return to South Dakota in “the next month or two” for another look at the situation.