South Dakota’s Burnt-Over Ground

With the South Dakota Senate race suddenly hanging fire, the national political media are naturally hurrying to catch up. And the meme they will almost certainly fall prey to is that of the folksy and quirky local politics of an underpopulated prairie state being taken over by massive infusions of outside money. In an early effort, the New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin does a pretty good job of not overplaying this idea (though he does become enchanted by Larry Pressler’s devotion to South Dakota poetry as contrasted with the national importance of the contest).

But before we get too carried away with the hired-guns-invade-the-peaceful-western-town thematics, it’s important to remember South Dakota has hosted some of the most intensive and (at least in terms of saturation ads and GOTV) expensive Senate races in history. One in 2002 lifted one of the state’s current Senators (the retiring Democrat Tim Johnson) over the other by a booming 524 votes. And the other in 2004 lifted the 2002 loser, Republican John Thune, over then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle–whose protege is current Democratic Senate nominee Rick Weiland–by a relatively luxurious 4508 votes.

In other words, this is hardly the first high-stakes political rodeo in South Dakota. I’m sure some ears have just stop ringing from past Senate elections where a tiny number of undecided voters was being relentlessly pursued via every available medium by a lot of people. What probably makes this contest remarkable is its relative fluidity and the complexities of a three-cornered (or four-cornered, if you count conservative indie Gordon Howie, who’s probably taking votes away from Republican Governor Mike Rounds) race.

Lord knows how many GOTV pros got their start in one of South Dakota’s earlier Senate races, or how many reputations will be made–or ruined–this time around.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.