Rounds welcomes Rhoden to the big leagues

My story in this morning’s paper looks at U.S. Senate candidate Larry Rhoden’s attempt to draw contrasts with frontrunner Mike Rounds over the question of style — Rhoden says he’ll pursue a more “hard-line” approach on core conservative values, and will be less willing than Rounds to compromise them.

Read it here.

What didn’t get in the article, but deserves attention, is the Rounds’ camp’s vigorous pushback when I called asking about Rhoden’s decision to sign the Americans For Tax Reform no-new-taxes pledge.

Very shortly after my conversation with Rounds, his aides emailed me two pieces of information that had taken some effort to compile. First was a list of every time in Rhoden’s entire 13-year legislative career that he voted on an bill dealing with taxes or fees.

You can read the document here.

There’s 56 votes on there, with notes on Rhoden’s votes on each one. By my count (and snap judgments, in a few borderline cases) 41 of those votes were on fee increases, while 15 dealt with tax increases. Rhoden voted yes on all of the latter and all but three of the former.

Now, Mike Rounds supported more than a few of these same tax and fee increases. But that’s not the point of this opposition research. Rounds isn’t trying to argue that he’s more conservative than Larry Rhoden. He’s trying to argue that Rhoden is no more conservative than he. It’s a continuation of Rounds’ brilliant strategy of hugging Rhoden to death.

"(Rhoden) actually proposed tax increases and he’s followed through on voting on tax increases while he was in the Legislature," Rounds said. "I don’t think he’d deny that."

In response, Rhoden said lumping taxes and fees together was misleading.

"From a tax perspective, I’ve always felt that fees were a more appropriate way to provide services to cover governmental costs, the costs of services associated with a program," Rhoden said. "The people that are benefitting from that service are the ones who are benefitting from that service. If you believe that fees are a more appropriate way to provide that service, it stands to reason there are going to be incremental increases as the cost of that service increases."

He also said the voting history doesn’t reflect Rhoden’s full legislative record, which he said was one of opposing tax increases.

"I have an actual and true record of supporting lower taxes," he said. "I carried the bill to repeal the trucker’s tax. I fought Gov. Rounds when he proposed increases in property tax. I was very vocal, and a leader in the cause of opposing the largest tax increase in state history when it was on the ballot to raise our sales tax by 25 percent."

But that list of votes — not the last time we’ll hear mention of that from Rounds this campaign — wasn’t the only bit of research the Rounds campaign sent over.

They also dug up an audio clip from this year of Rhoden arguing in favor of a bill this year to put a fee (or tax; there were arguments about the semantics) on fertilizer to help fund fertilizer research. In it, awkwardly given his recent announcements, Rhoden discussed tax pledges:

What we’re trying to do here, on one hand, is a tax increase — one that I think is legitimate, that’s agreed to by the producers, to fight some of the manure that’s coming out of D.C. With that, ladies and gentlemen, this is an example of why I have never signed one of the tax pledges, because I don’t know how that would pin you in a corner [sic]. Because in this case, on one side of the equation, it is a tax increase. But I think it’s very legitimate and necessary to take steps like this to combat some of the issues that we face coming from the federal level.

The bit about “pin you in a corner” is unclear — Rhoden seems to be saying that tax pledges pin you in a corner, given the context, but his extemporized words could also be read as saying the opposite. But in general, in this little speech, Rhoden seems to be echoing Rounds’ take on the no-new-taxes pledge — that they’re bad because they constrain legislators.

Rhoden said he distinguished between the state legislator tax pledge (PDF) that he had refused to sign, and the U.S. Senate tax pledge he did sign. The former commits the signer to oppose “any and all efforts to increase taxes,” while the latter is more specific, promising to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates.”

"Those tax pledges are different animals," Rhoden said. "Notwithstanding my statement, the tax pledge at the federal level is talking about income taxes. I will stand by my comments that I think that’s worthy of drawing a line in the sand and not negotiating."

He also said he had never looked closely at the tax pledge until he ran for U.S. Senate.

"I think I had probably a misperception in some ways about what was contained in the state pledge," Rhoden said. "To be honest, I had never paid much attention… It was never an issue. No one ever brought a state pledge to me (to sign or reject)."

Regardless of how this back-and-forth ends up affecting the campaign, one thing’s for certain: Mike Rounds is approaching his U.S. Senate campaign loaded for bear. Being prepared with this kind of opposition research suggests (though does not prove) that Rounds won’t be caught napping by challengers like some establishment candidates around the country have been in recent years.

And for Rhoden, it’s an introduction to a very different kind of campaign from his state legislative races in a safe West River district. He’ll have to rise to the occasion and then some if he wants to beat Rounds and win the nomination.