Some conservative groups down on Noem as Rounds challenger

As Rep. Kristi Noem continues to ponder running for U.S. Senate, some national conservative groups are skeptical she’d be the “conservative alternative” they want to former Gov. Mike Rounds in the race.

Rounds, who has drawn some fire from the right for refusing to sign a no-tax-increase pledge, has said he expects a primary challenge. Experts believe Noem would be his most dangerous rival in a GOP primary.

But the Club For Growth, a fiscally conservative group that’s not a fan of Rounds, said Noem’s no better.

"Neither Mike Rounds nor Kristi Noem is the type of candidate we would support," said Barney Keller, the Club’s communications director. "Neither of them are fiscal conservatives."

Meanwhile the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is also searching for a Rounds challenger, is “reviewing (Noem’s) record and watching to see how she’ll perform in office.”

"The farm bill is a big test," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund. "That’s an issue where I’m sure that she is very supportive of the farm program, but it’s been larded up with all these food stamps. What we really need is we need leaders in Washington who are willing to say, ‘I know this issue is very important to my constituents, but this isn’t the right way to legislate.’"

Noem voted for the farm bill as it passed the House Agriculture Committee and said she’s working hard to pass the bill.

"She’s for that but believes there’s still room for improvement," said Courtney Heitkamp, Noem’s spokeswoman.

Noem has supported cuts to the food stamp program that many Democrats say go too far, but it’s unclear if she goes far enough for groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Jordan Stoick, Noem’s chief of staff, defended the congresswoman’s conservatism.

"Rep. Noem is not beholden to any special interest group," Stoick said in a statement. "She has a solid record of cutting out-of-control government spending and will continue working hard to promote conservative solutions to the problems facing our country."

Rounds declined to comment on the Club For Growth’s comments.

Some conservative activists predict South Dakota conservatives would rally around Noem even if national groups don’t.

Former state senator Bill Napoli, who is considering challenging Rounds himself, said Noem isn’t a “hard-core conservative” but that she votes and acts conservative and has conservative beliefs.

"She’d be head over heels better than Mike Rounds," Napoli said.

Political science professor Jon Schaff of Northern State University said Noem would probably have the best chance of beating Rounds of any potential GOP primary rivals.

"Noem has establishment credential, but also she has credibility with, shall we say, the tea party wing of the party," said Schaff. "She straddles both sides. In that sense she would be a formidable primary challenger to Mike Rounds."

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Noem might be more likely to run now that Rick Weiland is the presumed Democratic Senate nominee and not former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Herseth Sandlin was considered by many outside experts to be a more formidable candidate before she decided not to run.

"If she only has to win a competitive primary and not deal with a competitive general election, (running for Senate) probably looks like a better path," Gonzales said. "I think most members of Congress would rather run every six years than every two years, if they had their choice."

It’s unclear when additional Republicans might enter the race. Noem has said she’ll make a decision in late summer, but is watching the race and has talked with outside groups about a possible run, according to an interview with The Hill newspaper. 

Noem isn’t under financial pressures to enter the race. While potential candidates like Napoli or state Rep. Stace Nelson can’t raise campaign funds until they declare their candidacy, Noem can fundraise for her House reelection campaign and then transfer that bank account to a Senate run later on.

Hoskins said his group doesn’t feel an urgency to get a Rounds challenger soon, with the 2014 GOP primary still more than a year away.

"I think there’s time," he said, while adding that it’s "good for candidates to get in and get running."

But Napoli warned that waiting too long could cost Noem.

"I hope she doesn’t wait until too much time has gone by, but I would like to see her run for that seat," he said. 

If Noem waits too long, “a lot of people will have committed to other candidates,” Napoli said. “I think that might really affect her race.”

Next up for SD politics — Pat O’Brien?

The 2014 South Dakota Senate race has already been among the most fascinating in the nation, with a lot of national attention, machinations by multiple parties, hurt feelings and the potential for more to come.

Could it about to get a whole lot crazier?

In a throwaway moment on Adam Carolla’s podcast today, Sioux Falls native and longtime sports and entertainment broadcaster Pat O’Brien referred to an interest in entering politics.

"(University of South Dakota political science professor William Farber) always wanted me to run for office in South Dakota — which I still may do," O’Brien said, referring to his mentor at USD.

O’Brien, the former host of “Access Hollywood” and a longtime sportscaster, has previously identified as a “McGovern Democrat” and flirted with returning to South Dakota to run for office before. 

Eric Ostermeier of Smart Politics notes that in 2003 O’Brien spoke about possibly challenging Mike Rounds for South Dakota governor in 2006. Now Rounds could be the GOP Senate nominee in 2014.

Of course, O’Brien brings with him his share of baggage. He’s had a high-profile battle with alcoholism that climaxed with “sexually graphic” voicemails placed while drunk — a gift from heaven for an opposition researcher.

O’Brien has been very frank about his battle with alcoholism, discussing it not only in the Carolla interview but also in his autobiography and in a recent appearance at McCrossan Boys Ranch.

Of course, O’Brien didn’t actually single out the U.S. Senate race or 2014 in the Carolla interview. The 65-year-old could be pondering a different race (governor? House?) or a different year. And the entrance of someone like O’Brien into any of those races would certainly shake things up. But none of these races will be more prominent than the Senate race, so as a chronicler and observer I can only dream…

Politico: Weiland pick spurs Daschle-Reid ‘feud’

Lone Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland is “not my choice,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Politico, in a surprisingly blunt statement of national Democrats’ preference for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Reid also dismissed Weiland, saying “we’re going to have a candidate there; we don’t have it yet.”

The Politico story adds Reid’s quotes and some anonymous sourcing to my report from Sunday looking into how Weiland got into the race, Tom Daschle’s role in that and the skepticism Weiland is facing as he tries to build up a Senate bid.

It also adds a juicy feud angle, talking to anonymous Democrats who say Reid is furious at Daschle for encouraging Weiland to run:

Daschle’s endorsement of Weiland helped persuade Herseth Sandlin to pass on the Senate race, according to Democratic sources close to the issue. Reid and top Senate Democrats were stunned and outraged by Daschle’s move, a sentiment Reid communicated directly to the former senator, according to several people familiar with the incident.

The first assertion there, that Weiland’s endorsement helped keep Herseth Sandlin out, is something I had heard rumored, too. People in both the Weiland camp and the Herseth Sandlin camp were skeptical when I asked them about it, with one Herseth Sandlin ally saying “If she felt the right thing to do was to run, she would have been 100 percent in there.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the anonymous information I and Politico both heard is wrong; just take both conflicting reports into consideration.

Other revelations in the Politico report:

  • Daschle was defensive of his support for Weiland, noting their decades-long friendship and pointing out that Herseth Sandlin was never committed to the race, merely exploring it.
  • A national Democrat suggests the DSCC won’t mobilize resources for Weiland after his role in allegedly pushing Herseth Sandlin out of the race. “This is [Daschle’s] race,” the anonymous Democrat said. “If he wants to encourage someone to get in, if he wants to endorse someone to get in, he should be prepared to raise all the money necessary to support them.”
  • Reid is apparently taking Daschle’s endorsement as a personal slight between the two longtime colleagues; Daschle is downplaying it and says he’s still planning to host a DSCC fundraiser.
  • As rumored, the story confirms that Reid met with Tim Johnson and his wife Barbara to urge them to keep their son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, out of the race. (The Politico story also gets Barbara’s name wrong, referring to her as “Martha.”)

Read the full story here.

Later that day: Noem, less coy on the Senate

This morning, Rep. Kristi Noem told reporters she hasn’t “spent a lot of time thinking about a timetable” for making a decision about running for Senate and would “deal with politics a little bit later.”

Apparently “a little bit later” meant “that afternoon.”

A few hours after her morning interview, Noem told The Hill that she is “watching the (Senate) race,” has “had some conversations with organizations” about a Senate run. She even gave a timetable: 

"We haven’t made up our minds on what we’re going to do at all, and probably won’t for several months yet," Noem said.

UPDATE: I’m told Noem’s comments to The Hill were actually made Wednesday, though the article was published today.

Read the new, more forthright comments from Noem here.

Rep. Kristi Noem still coy on Senate

Rep. Kristi Noem had some news to share.

"I also wanted to make an announcement about something new today I’m going to be doing," Noem told reporters dialed in to her weekly conference call with the South Dakota media.

But the announcement was that she would be holding an ag-focused conference call with South Dakota citizens next week (at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.).

The announcement a lot of people are waiting for Noem to make — whether she will run for U.S. Senate — will have to wait for another day.

"I’m still focused on doing the job I was elected to do," Noem said when asked about the Senate. "With the farm bill going on right now I’m focused on that. So we’ll have to deal with politics a little bit later."

That’s basically the same answer Noem has given for months to this question. It hasn’t changed despite some Noem advisers going further and confirming her interest in the race to the media.

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin will not run for office this year

Former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin announced this morning that she will not run for office in 2014, as she had considered.

In a post on her Facebook page, the Democrat cited her family and job as reasons for not running.

"While I know you share my confidence that working together we could win a statewide race next year, I’m also confident that the decision not to run is the right decision for Max, Zachary, me and our entire family," Herseth Sandlin wrote, referring to her husband Max Sandlin and her son Zachary.

She had been widely considered as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.

Rick Weiland, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, is the only Democratic candidate in the race so far. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the only Republican running.

Stay with Argus Leader Media for more developments in this story.

And so it begins…

Mike Rounds’ honeymoon is over.

He’s known all along that running for Senate will mean facing criticism for some of the things he did — and defended — as governor. One of Rounds’ weaknesses is open government, something he’s always been leery about.

This morning, the conservative news site The Daily Caller reported on Rounds denying their a Democratic group’s records request for some of the former governor’s personal correspondence.

After Rounds denied their request for information about the governor’s mansion construction, the Capitol renovation, the Homestake lab, inmate files and other governor’s office reports, Daily Caller reporter Alexis Levinson summarized the state of South Dakota’s open records laws, and the role Rounds played in keeping them from being more open.

The Argus Leader has covered these issues extensively over the years — Levinson’s article relies heavily on past Argus Leader reporting for her context.

But this issue illustrates the different world a U.S. Senate campaign is compared to a gubernatorial campaign. South Dakotans may not have cared very much when the Argus Leader reported on how limited our state’s open records laws are. But nationally, most states and the federal government make FAR more information available to the public than does South Dakota. The law letting Mike Rounds keep his official correspondence private may seem normal to some South Dakotans, but to outsiders it looks like he’s being secretive and hiding things.

Even under Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Rounds’ successor (and ally) who is much more favorable to open government, it’s been a very slow slog expanding open government laws in South Dakota. A commission convened by Daugaard and Attorney General Marty Jackley proposed eight new laws last year. Half of them — including some of the most significant, such as a bill opening up police mug shots to the public as they are in almost every other state — were defeated in the Legislature despite backing from Daugaard and Jackley.

So welcome to South Dakota, national reporters. It’s a whole new world here.

(Note: I misread the original Daily Caller article about who filed the open records request Rounds rejected — it was a Democratic group, not the Daily Caller. Fixed — though it’s worth noting that the point of open records laws is that anyone can use them, from the press to your bitterest enemies. The information is free regardless of what purposes people intend it for.)

Does Weiland make Noem more likely to run?

Rep. Kristi Noem has refused to rule out a run for U.S. Senate against Mike Rounds. Her decision here will have a big impact on the race, as the biggest Republican name out there who could challenge Rounds in the primary.

I think her chances of running this morning are considerably higher than they were 24 hours ago.

Why? It has to do with what I think are two of Noem’s key goals here:

1) She would like to be a U.S. Senator

2) She would like for the GOP to take South Dakota’s U.S. Senate seat

The problem is that with Mike Rounds already in the race, the two goals conflict somewhat — a bruising GOP primary could make it more difficult for whichever Republican wins to triumph in the general election.

But Rick Weiland’s candidacy eases that devil’s calculus a little bit.

That’s presuming you consider Weiland to be a less formidable general election candidate than either Brendan Johnson or Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. This point could be debated, but I’d bet Republicans agree with NBC News that whatever Weiland’s potential, he’s “not a top-tier candidate" compared to Herseth Sandlin and Johnson.

Weiland running for Senate means Republicans now face two dominant possibilities in terms of their Democratic opponent:

1) The Democrats nominate Weiland, seen as less formidable than Herseth Sandlin or Johnson

2) The Democrats nominate Herseth Sandlin, but only after she beats Weiland in a fierce primary

Either case would seem to strengthen the GOP hand over an alternative in which either Herseth Sandlin or Johnson cruises to an uncontested nomination.

And a strengthened GOP hand gives the party more margin for error. In other words, it makes the party better able to absorb a fierce primary of its own.

So if Kristi Noem is being held back from a Senate run by appeals to party loyalty, Weiland’s candidacy would ameliorate some of those concerns.

That leaves the primary obstacle being the personal uncertainty — giving up her current job, where she’s the incumbent and presumably has a better chance of winning than an open Senate seat primary battle against a popular former governor.

Noem’s still no lock to run for office. But whatever Stephanie Herseth Sandlin does, Rick Weiland has made Noem’s choice a little easier.

Brendan Johnson backers say he won’t run, praise Weiland (Updated)

Rick Weiland said one reason he was running for Senate was because he was had spoken with U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson — and come away convinced Tim Johnson’s son wouldn’t run for Senate, as he had been widely rumored to be considering.

"Brendan and I have had some pretty serious conversations about this," Weiland told us. "He’s focused on his job. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel that Brendan (wasn’t) going to get into this race."

Meanwhile Ryan Casey, the public face of the “Draft Brendan Johnson for U.S. Senate” campaign, said something very similar.

I actually spoke with Brendan yesterday,” Casey said. “He informed me that he was going to continue to focus on his responsibilities as U.S. Attorney. I’m pretty certain at this point that Brendan won’t enter the race for U.S. Senate.”

He then tweeted out praise for Rick Weiland: 

Casey also sent out an email blast to the “Draft Brendan” email list, urging former Brendan Johnson supporters to support Weiland instead.

And this from Mike Chapman, a former Tim Johnson aide:

Chapman currently heads Heartland America, a Super PAC that a had been one of the prime suspects for what Tim Johnson will do with his $1.2 million war chest — as a Super PAC, it can accept unlimited donations from federal candidates.

And Chapman had certainly shown extreme interest in the South Dakota Senate race. On Twitter, he’s promoted Brendan Johnson’s possible Senate candidacy extensively — and retweeted all sorts of stories critical of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Now he and Casey are promoting Rick Weiland as a “great candidate for U.S. Senate”? It’s unclear exactly how close their ties are to the Johnson camp, but one interpretation is that Brendan Johnson won’t be running and that his allies are backing Weiland — who already has support from Tom Daschle.

Also worth remembering: one of the Democrats the “Draft Brendan” movement had announced as a backer was Kevin Weiland — Rick’s brother.

If Herseth Sandlin runs as well we could be in for a doozy of a Democratic primary — exactly what Democrats had hoped to avoid, even if Weiland-Herseth Sandlin wouldn’t be quite as big as a Brendan Johnson-Herseth Sandlin matchup.

First Dem to run for SD Senate is… Rick Weiland?

Jonathan Ellis and I just broke the news that Rick Weiland, the former Tom Daschle aide who ran for U.S. House in 1996 and 2002, has announced he’s running for U.S. Senate.

Weiland is the first Democrat to enter the race, and is a bit of a surprise. Speculation until now had centered on Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Brendan Johnson.

The jury’s still out on what Herseth Sandlin will do. But Weiland said he’d spoken with Brendan Johnson lately and was convinced Johnson wouldn’t run. Had Johnson run, Weiland said he’d have backed the U.S. Attorney.

If Herseth Sandlin does run, it won’t be the first time she’s faced off against Weiland. It won’t even be the second time she’s butted heads with a Weiland.

In 2002, Weiland came in a distant second place in the Democratic primary to the woman then known as Stephanie Herseth.

Then in 2010, Weiland’s brother Kevin announced a last-minute challenge to Herseth Sandlin after she voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — only to back down after pressure from national Democrats and Herseth Sandlin’s promise that she opposed repealing the health care reform law.

While national Democrats will probably try to get Rick Weiland to pull out, don’t look for a repeat. While Kevin Weiland’s candidacy was fueled by grassroots anger, Rick also has some big-name backers — including Daschle, who he said was supportive of his plans.

More to come tomorrow and in days to come.

If you have questions, be sure to visit at 3 p.m. tomorrow for a special edition of our live Internet talk show, “100 Eyes on South Dakota Politics,” where we’ll be talking about this announcement.

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