Mike Rounds, the Republican Most Likely to Take Over a Democratic Senate Seat, and His Struggles With the Tea Party

Hey, media, cover this guy.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a moment of shame earlier today, I asked on Twitter why American political junkies were hearing so much about a man who will never hold another political office, like Anthony Weiner, but nothing about someone who will likely be a senator soon, like former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds. A few wags pointed out that I was a member of the media (guilty) and hadn’t written about Rounds. Fair point; I’ve never been to South Dakota and had little to say about his run for Senate.

That changes today!

So, Mike Rounds. From 2003 to 2011, he was the Republican governor of a very Republican state. Even before Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement, Rounds was angling to run in 2014. When Johnson made it official, so did Rounds, and he’s looked like a sure-thing next senator as Democrats have scrambled to convince Johnson’s son Brendan (a U.S. attorney) to run. Rep. Kristi Noem opted out of the race, so Rounds has no first-tier oppostion. Via David Montgomery and the Argus Leader, I see that he’s trying to run to the center.

Example one: He hasn’t signed ATR’s tax pledge. When Larry Rhoden, one of his conservative challengers, chided him for that, Rounds shrugged and said “he’ll never be a player at the table,” and that “if there was a way to come up with even a hundred-fold reduction in spending for a one-fold increase in taxes, he wouldn’t do it.”

Example two: Rounds’ conservative opponents have signed the pledge to defund Obamacare (assuming there aren’t enough Republicans around in 2015 to kill it outright). Rounds won’t. “If there was a way to get the Obamacare off the backs of the American public, it would be a fight worth having,” he told Montgomery. “I would want to assess whether or not there was any possibility of success in getting it done, or if there was any possibility of coming up with the votes to have an impact.”

So he has primary challengers calling him a Republican In Name Only (RINO). The result is that a candidate who led the incumbent by 11 points before his retirement, who could waltz to the Senate without party committees spending a dime on him, is having to work for it. (Democrats do have a candidate, failed 1996 House nominee Rick Weiland, on the ballot in case Rounds somehow loses a primary.)*

*Correction, July 31, 2013: This post originally misstated the year Rick Weiland ran for Congress.