POLITICS

Rick Weiland Has A Minivan, $300,000 And A Guitar. Can He Get To The Senate?

WASHINGTON -- Can you win a seat in the United States Senate by driving around in a minivan, strumming a guitar and singing about the evils of money in politics?

The question will soon be answered in South Dakota, where Rick Weiland, a former Clinton official and top staffer to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, is running for the open seat.

If you haven’t heard much about Weiland before this week, you’re not alone. He was cast long ago as a colorful folk-music-singing populist with virtually no chance in a state with strong Republican leanings. The race to replace retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D) was in the hands of well-liked former Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican. Even were Rounds to stumble, the natural beneficiary was Larry Pressler, the former Republican senator who is running as an independent, not the guy refiguring a Johnny Cash song into an ode to small town South Dakota.

But a confluence of events -- chief among them, the bizarre embezzling scandal that’s engulfed Rounds -- has added a heaping dose of unpredictability to the race. As the campaign enters its final four weeks, Democrats have decided to pour millions of dollars into a contest they once described as unwinnable. Suddenly, South Dakota is the hot new race being discussed and the prospect of Weiland getting elected no longer seems so remote.

“The whole idea of taking the government back from big money special interests is the idea that has gotten me into this position,” he told The Huffington Post in a Thursday interview. “I think it resonates with the town-to-town campaign. I think our music videos have connected the dots in a very powerful way.”

There is a cinematic feel to what is happening in South Dakota. And it’s not just that Weiland comes off as the ideological inverse of Bob Roberts, the folk singer and Republican Senate candidate memorably portrayed by Tim Robbins. The scandal that’s engulfed Rounds seems like something out of a Coen brothers movie.

For a thorough explanation, it’s best to read this primer from South Dakota's Argus Leader. But the basic details are this: As governor, Rounds embraced a federal program that gave green cards to immigrants who invested $500,000 in U.S projects. He hired a political ally to run the program. That ally subsequently made it private and gave himself no-bid contracts to oversee it. One of the companies that benefited from the program went bankrupt within a year. And, in the murkiest of plot twists, South Dakota’s former secretary of tourism and state development –- a man who was involved in the program and helped shepherd money to the company that went bankrupt -- shot himself to death in a cornfield. His arrest was reportedly imminent.

With this Fargo-like backdrop, Rounds has stumbled. But the problem, as Democrats see it, is that two people are trying to fill the void.

Pressler certainly seems to be in the best position to overtake Rounds. The most recent poll of the race showed him drawing 32 percent of voters to Rounds’ 35 percent and Weiland's 28 percent. Were Weiland to drop out, the vast majority of his supporters would vote for Pressler, who would lead Rounds 54 percent to 39 percent. A hypothetical Weiland-Rounds matchup, however, would end in a tie: the poll showed they'd each get 47 percent.

It’s this type of math that’s dissuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from endorsing Weiland, a reluctance that has led to public clashes with Daschle. Told that there seemed to be some issues between him and the majority leader, Weiland laughed it off.

“Really?” he replied, sarcastically.

“I don’t know Harry Reid. I’ve met him a couple of times. I’ll let him comment on that,” Weiland said. “I think the national Democrats have been focused on races where the incumbents are in trouble … in states where they thought they had a better chance of winning. In this state, conventional wisdom was that you’ve got a two-term, so-called popular governor, who is going to be well financed. This just wasn’t a state that they thought would get in play.

"I maintained all along, because I know my state and Tom Daschle knows the state, Tim Johnson knows the state, that if you get out there and you do what I’ve done the last year and a half, you can convince some Republicans to vote for you and you can win," he added.

Weiland has run a quintessentially insurgent campaign. On virtually every issue, he has staked out a position against corporate interests -- from guns (he supports background checks and believes that “the NRA, the special interests, the gun manufacturers are standing in the way”) to immigration reform (he says the House won’t take up the Senate's bill because “it is all embroiled in big money politics on their end”).

He is unabashedly liberal. Hiking the minimum wage is at the forefront of his agenda. On health care reform, he wants to give the entire population the opportunity to buy into Medicare. “It’s the public option I would have offered if I was in the United States Senate,” he said.

He believes the best way to reform Social Security is to erase the caps on the payroll taxes that help keep the program solvent. The only issue he criticized President Barack Obama on is the conflict in Syria.

“I don’t think we should be arming the Syrian rebels. We armed Osama bin Laden and he turned the guns on us 20 years later,” he said. “I would have voted against that, absolutely. And you know what? I won’t vote to put boots on the ground.”

But before Weiland gets the chance to cast such a vote, he'll probably have to raise some more money. Weiland has all of six staffers working on his campaign. He’s put 50,000 miles on his minivan and has only $300,000 cash on hand. He estimates that he has less than $15,000 to spend each month on his operations.

“I’m basically traveling the state around in my little blue minivan, while my opponent gets to stretch out his legs in a big, big-ass RV that says 'Grassroots Express,'” he said, adding that his is probably one of the most poorly funded campaigns of the cycle.

That may explain why he remains stuck just under 30 percent in the polls. You can visit all 311 incorporated towns in your state, hold more than 220 public meetings, and release all the viral campaign-themed music videos you want, and even in a state as sparsely populated as South Dakota, folks may still not know who you are.

An investment from outside groups may help with that. MayDay PAC, the super PAC launched with the goal of eliminating super PACs, has announced it will spend $1 million on ads bolstering Weiland. Every Voice Action, another super PAC that aims to decrease the influence of money in politics, has targeted both Rounds and Pressler. Howard Dean’s Democracy for America has elevated the South Dakota race into a top priority and helped out with canvassing. And on Wednesday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it would put $1 million of its own money into the race.

But the DSCC won’t be working to boost Weiland specifically. Its ads will target Rounds, and if Pressler is the prime beneficiary, so be it. Nevertheless, Weiland sees the late-stage entrance of outside groups into the race as both a big help and a clear indication that he has a fighting chance.

“And I’m running against big money!” he said.

Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.

Want more updates from Sam? Sign up for his newsletter, Spam Stein.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

  • Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.)
    Before winning his congressional race, <a href="http://www.freep.com/article/20121014/NEWS15/310140156/Kerry-Bentivolio-From-
    AP
    Before winning his congressional race, Bentivolio was a reindeer farmer, Santa impersonator and star in a low-budget 9/11 conspiracy movie -- as well as a veteran, auto designer and teacher. He is defending his seat against attorney and "foreclosure king" David Trott in Michigan's 11th District.
  • Republican House candidate Jake Rush
    Rush, an attorney who is challenging Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), led a double life. Until late last year, he also went by alterna
    Rush, an attorney who is challenging Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), led a double life. Until late last year, he also went by alternative identities such as "Chazz Darling" and "Staas van der Winst" as a member of the Mind's Eye Society, a group of gothic-punk role-players who pretend to be supernatural beings like vampires. Rush defended his hobby, saying he's simply "a gamer" with "a deep appreciation for theatre."
  • Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R)
    Grothman, who is taking on Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) in the state's 6th District, has advocated for a number of <a href="https:
    Getty Images
    Grothman, who is taking on Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) in the state's 6th District, has advocated for a number of deeply unpopular policy positions, like making public employees work on Martin Luther King Day and reverting to a seven-day work week. He has also said Kwanzaa is a fake holiday that "almost no black people today care about."
  • Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett (R)
    Bennett, who is running in the Republican primary to succeed Gov. Jan Brewer (R), <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politic
    AP
    Bennett, who is running in the Republican primary to succeed Gov. Jan Brewer (R), threatened to leave President Barack Obama off the ballot in Arizona if Hawaii didn't verify Obama's birthplace. He made the threat a year after the White House produced Obama's long-form birth certificate.
  • Democratic congressional candidate Aaron Woolf
    Woolf, who is running to succeed retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), has <a href="http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/
    Campaign
    Woolf, who is running to succeed retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), has an unconventional background as a congressional candidate: He is a documentary filmmaker who made the award-winning "King Corn" and the owner of an organic deli and grocery store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called "Urban Rustic."
  • Republican congressional candidate Isaac Misiuk
    <a href="http://www.misiukforcongress.com/about-isaac.html" target="_blank">The 24-year-old Misiuk</a> is an engaged father o
    Campaign
    The 24-year-old Misiuk is an engaged father of one child and a second-year student at the University of Southern Maine. He is attempting to unseat Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and may be the youngest congressional candidate in the country.
  • Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R)
    Ernst, who will challenge Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) seat in November, gained crucial
    Associated Press
    Ernst, who will challenge Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) seat in November, gained crucial momentum in her primary by running an ad in which she proudly touted her background castrating hogs, saying she knows "how to cut pork."
  • Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland
    Weiland, who is in the race to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/en
    Associated Press
    Weiland, who is in the race to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), visited every one of South Dakota's 311 incorporated towns. When he finished his tour of every town, his campaign announced that he'd do it all again.
  • Republican Senate candidate Milton Wolf
    Wolf is a a radiologist and tea party activist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). His campaign came under fire in
    Associated Press
    Wolf is a a radiologist and tea party activist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). His campaign came under fire in February after it was revealed that he had posted and commented on his patients' X-ray photographs on Facebook in 2010. Some of those patients included fatal gunshot victims. Wolf has also compared his distant cousin, who happens to be President Barack Obama, to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
  • Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)
    LePage, who has been called "<a href="http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/paul-lepage-maine-governor-crazy-101923.
    AP
    LePage, who has been called "America's Craziest Governor" and "The Worst Governor Of All," is up for reelection in November. In one famous incident, he told the NAACP to "kiss my butt" when the group complained that he had refused to attend a Martin Luther King Day breakfast. He also said President Barack Obama could "go to hell" and told attendees at a fundraiser that the president "hates white people." LePage also once told students: "If you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can't afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school."
CONVERSATIONS