Larry Pressler has had “Republican” and “independent” next to his name, and he may add “Democrat” if given the chance.
Last week, political observers started flagging South Dakota as another onetime safe Republican Senate seat in jeopardy, like Kansas, speculating that Pressler’s run as an independent could affect control of the upper house. Although he has stayed mum as to which caucus he would join if elected, Pressler, who served as a Republican senator from 1979 to 1997, now finds himself more aligned with the Democrats and President Obama on issues such as Obamacare, gun control, and immigration.
Pressler hasn’t been shy about his partiality to Barack Obama, dating back to the latter’s first run for president in 2008. That year, Pressler snubbed his former party and endorsed Obama, and he backed Obama again in his reelection bid in 2012. Voters in the state disagreed with their erstwhile senator, and the president lost South Dakota both times — by nearly 20 percentage points in 2012.
As recently as Thursday of last week, amid the increased national buzz, Pressler maintained he was “a friend of Obama,” a warmer embrace of the president than most Democratic candidates have been willing to offer this cycle. With just 31 percent of South Dakotans approving of the president’s policies, Pressler’s support for the Affordable Care Act (which he insists the Mount Rushmore State “needs”), higher taxes on the wealthy, Common Core education standards, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally further highlights his divergence from his state’s voters.
The same goes for cultural wedge issues in the Republican-leaning state. Last year, as Pressler was gearing up for his Senate run, he had an interview in National Journal in which he voiced his support for stricter gun-control measures such as “much, much stronger background checks” on gun sales, and he said he was open to banning “assault rifles.” While he described himself as more “antiabortion” than not, he objected to a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Don’t tell Pressler he has shifted leftward, though: He rejects that notion entirely. “If anything, I’m more conservative than I’ve been before,” he told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last month. Instead, he has repeatedly lamented that Republicans are the ones that “moved,” leaving him to “feel like a man without a party.”
The media’s sudden enthusiasm over Pressler came after a new SurveyUSA poll put him within striking distance of the Republican nominee, former governor Mike Rounds. While Rounds led in the three-way race with 35 percent, Pressler was close behind with 32 percent, followed by Democrat Rick Weiland at 28 percent. The same survey found that if Weiland dropped out, Pressler would crush Rounds 54–39. A Nielson Brothers survey from late September showed Pressler behind but running strongly — within two percentage points of Rounds — if Weiland weren’t on the ballot.
As a result, some have floated the notion that South Dakota’s contest could mirror the turn of events in Kansas, where independent Greg Orman is unexpectedly running neck-and-neck with Republican incumbent Pat Roberts. With Pressler’s name recognition and the general distaste for the two major parties, some saw him poised for an upset.
But Pressler may have already seen his moment pass. Both Republicans and Democrats poured millions into the state within days of Pressler’s emergence, likely making his rise more of a blip than sustained momentum. The amplified media attention hasn’t helped Pressler either: A Politico report revealed that he still calls Washington, D.C., his primary residence and owns a Manhattan apartment, while he has only a part interest in the family farm in South Dakota.
Pressler left the Senate in 1997 after losing to Democrat Tim Johnson, and he’s now running for the seat a retiring Johnson will leave vacant. But nearly two decades later, in trying to retake his seat, Pressler may now have more in common with the party that unseated him than the one that elected him.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.