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What Democrats Could Learn from South Dakota

by John Nichols on March 27, 2014

 

Copyright © 2014 The Nation—distributed by Agence Global

South Dakota has sent Democrats to the Senate on a reasonably consistent basis for 50 years, and it has on an even more consistent basis over an even longer period of time sent prairie populists to the Senate: from the actual Populist Party’s James Kyle to Silver Republican Richard F. Pettigrew to modern Democrats George McGovern and Jim Abourezk.

This year, with South Dakota’s Senate seat open, Rick Weiland is running like the prairie populists of old—challenging the big corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, big banks that seek bailouts and, above all, the big money that has come to dominate our politics. He has attracted considerable support in South Dakota. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington Democrats have a hard time understanding a politics that eschews concession and compromise and instead preaches of fire-and-brimstone gospel of economic and social justice.

Weiland speaks the language of the old-time populists: “I was born here. I grew up on this land. It was ours because our democracy kept it that way. Today our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kids’ education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse.”

The Democratic contender campaigns as the populists did, not with slick television commercials but on the road, with a commitment to visit every one of South Dakota’s 311 towns.

In those towns, he explains that big money has rigged our economy so that heads they win and tails we lose:

• Crash the economy by blatant criminal and irresponsible behavior. Get bailed out.

• Get caught defrauding American taxpayers and have to pay billions of dollars in fines. . . . . Not to worry, those fines are tax deductible.

• Donate a million dollars to a politician and get a billion-dollar tax break.

Weiland proposed voluntary campaign spending limits. But his likely foe, former Gov. Mike Rounds, rejected the idea and has announced plans to raise and epic campaign fund of $9 million—with an eye toward scaring other candidates and Democratic donors away from the race.

Weiland refused to back down. He’s running against the money, saying, “It is time to stand up and take our country back. We have done it before and we need to do it again.” To that end, he pledges that the first bill he will introduce as a senator is a constitutional amendment that reads, “So that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of a few, shall direct the course of the Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.”

Weiland certainly faces a fight to keep the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in Democratic hands. South Dakota has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and it has not elected a Democratic governor since Dick Kneip was reelected in 1974—along with McGovern. Yet, Weiland is determined to spark a populist uprising.

And the political dynamics on the ground are, at the very least, intriguing. Rounds leads the race for the Republican nod. But former Republican U.S. Rep. and U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, a maverick who lost to Johnson in 1996 and has since criticized his party for moving too far to the right, plans to enter the race as an independent.

Why aren’t national Democrats taking Weiland campaign to hold a Democratic seat more seriously?

“Why,” as the Washington-insider journal The Hill asked this week, “is South Dakota’s Rick Weiland getting (the) cold shoulder? . . . Rick Weiland will be the Democratic Senate nominee in South Dakota, but party leaders are less than thrilled about it.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) has been particularly dismissive of Weiland, bluntly declaring that the longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and former South Dakota director for the American Association of Retired People (AARP), was “not my choice.”

Weiland has gotten support from Democracy for America, the activist group founded by former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean. When Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee, in a period that saw the party win back the Congress and then the White House, he championed a 50-state strategy. That approach saw possibilities for organizing—and winning elections—in Republican-leaning regions that most Democratic strategists had previously avoided. Dean and DFA also recognized the power of populist appeals.

Part of Weiland’s message to DFA activists is this declaration:

“I believe that we got half a loaf with health care reform because we did not get a public option. I believe that every American, regardless of age or health, should be allowed to buy into Medicare. I believe that big money special interests have taken over our government and turned it against us. Our campaign finance laws have failed to stop billionaires and corporations from being able to elect the politicians of their choosing—the same politicians who let them write laws that disproportionately favor their own personal and financial interests.

“We are not going to get the change we need in this country until we get big money out of politics. American families are working harder and harder yet they are failing to get ahead. They are working themselves to the bone while Wall Street and big money special interests rig the economy against them. I am committed to fighting this distortion of our political system and putting our government on the side of ordinary citizens.”

That is, unquestionably, a populist message, one very much in the tradition of the appeals that South Dakota has answered in the past—and that Washington has always struggled to understand.