Weiland has finance challenge, threat for Rounds

Rick Weiland asked former Gov. Mike Rounds if the two could jointly limit their campaign finance contributions Monday — while repeatedly insisting the offer wasn’t “just a campaign stunt” and threatening to seek funding “from whomever I am able to persuade to join me” if Rounds doesn’t go along.

Weiland’s offer: from this point onward, both candidates would not accept any contributions of more than $100.

That would almost certainly put paid to Rounds’ just-announced goal of raising $9 million for his campaign, while also severely limiting Weiland’s fundraising. In 2010, for example, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin raised $758,730 from itemized individual donors. If you add up all the donations from people who gave $100 or less, and assume everyone else who gave more just gave $100, you get a total of $80,720. (It’s hard to calculate this counterfactual because the Federal Election Commission’s standard for when donations have to be itemized is $250 in total gifts — so some, but not all, of Herseth Sandlin’s $171,032 in unitemized donations would be affected by a $100 cap. If you go with a $250 cap, Herseth Sandlin ends up with about $360,000 in individual donations, just under one-third of what she actually raised in her losing effort.)

Weiland argued that a contribution-limiting pledge would “put our state at the forefront of what I believe to be the most important single fight of our time, the fight to get big money out of politics, and thus off the back of, and out of the pockets of, what is supposed to be the people’s government.”

But in his letter to Rounds, Weiland also included a vague threat:

But Mike, if your advisers counsel you to proceed with your own unlimited fund raising despite my request, and tell you you should run the nine million dollar race they have apparently suggested to you, please assure them on my behalf that I believe in a level playing field and will then seek as much funding as I am able to find, from whomever I am able to persuade to join me in my effort to limit the influence of big money over our United States Congress.

And in a background sheet distributed to reporters, Weiland’s campaign argues several times that the offer is sincere, not a “stunt,” because it would hurt Weiland more than it would hurt Rounds:

But assume that Governor Rounds spends $9 million, and Weiland only half that, $4.5 million. (if Rick’s $100 limit proposal is rejected by the Governor) On the other hand, if the proposal is accepted, the Governor has said he expects to raise $1.5 million in small donations. Because he is not as well known, and is a member of the minority party, Rick would probably raise about $1 million.

Ask any knowledgeable observer of South Dakota politics, or politics anywhere, which is better for the widely known majority party former Governor in a race against an almost unknown challenger, a 9 million to 4.5 million spending advantage, or a 1.5 million to 1 million spending edge, and the answer will be the second of these, the low spending edge. That will be the answer, of course, because a one million dollar campaign severely limits the challengers ability to put his or her message before the voters, whereas 4.5 million, even though less than the former Governors spending, is more than enough to present an aggressive, and fully nuanced, candidacy to the voters in our small state.

An interesting, and possibly correct analysis if you limit the scope solely to the Rounds-Weiland general election battle that seems most likely. What this overlooks, however, is the primary battle Rounds would have to face — and the onslaught of ads from conservative activist groups his campaign expects to face. Weiland and Rounds would each tie a hand behind their back, but the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club For Growth would do no such thing. My read of the situation is that, right or wrong, Rounds feels more worried by an assault from these third-party groups than he does by what he’ll face in the general election.