Democrats launch strategic feint in South Dakota Senate race

Something’s stirring in South Dakota,” observed The Rachel Maddow Show producer Steve Benen cheekily on Wednesday morning.

Benen noted that former South Dakota Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who despite facing a three-way race has led in most public polls by double digits, may be facing a tougher contest than many previously thought.

“In September, two statewide polls showed the race tightening,” Benen wrote, “and yesterday, a Survey USA poll found all three candidates separated by just seven points: Rounds with 35% support, [former GOP-turned-independent Sen. Larry] Pressler at 32%, and [Democrat Rick] Weiland a competitive third with 28%.”

Benen added that a local scandal involving some Rounds appointees mismanaging state funds and national Democrats shifting support away from the failing Democratic nominee and implicitly toward the more competitive independent candidate could make for a more lively contest in South Dakota.

Brenan was on to something.

“The [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] has private polling showing that Weiland has no chance of winning in any combination of the field, including in a head-to-head matchup against Rounds,” a Democratic source told The Hill last week. All that has apparently changed virtually overnight.

According to a report in Bloomberg Politics via Michael Bender and Mark Halperin, the DSCC is going to mount an advertising blitz with up to $1 million in ad buys in the relatively inexpensive state in order to diminish Rounds’ electoral prospects.

“The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the party has polled the race four times, including last week, and the results were close enough to warrant the spending, the vast majority of which will go for negative TV ads attacking Republican nominee Mike Rounds,” the Bloomberg Politics piece read.

Public and private polls show Rounds, a former governor who easily won two terms, mired in the mid-30s with both Democrat Rick Weiland and former Republican Senator Larry Pressler within striking distance. A fourth candidate, independent Gordon Howie, is trailing, but Democrats think his presence in the race is giving them a chance to win by siphoning conservative votes. In a four-way race, less than 35 percent of the vote could be a winning total.

Democrats believe they will keep the seat in their party’s hands if either Weiland or Pressler prevails. Pressler is also running as an independent, but Democrats believe he could well caucus with them. He publicly endorsed President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Could Democrats be hoping to pull off a Kansas-esque switcheroo in South Dakota? It’s possible, but Rounds is no Pat Roberts (R-KS) and The Mount Rushmore State is not the Sunflower State. Real Clear Politics average of polls of the South Dakota race shows Rounds soaring above both challengers with an average 11.7 percent lead. Huffington Post’s pollster has documented a pronounced trend in which Pressler is apparently siphoning votes away from Rounds, but the former governor still maintains a nearly 11 point average lead over Weiland and a nearly 13 point average lead over Pressler.

Karl von Clausewitz wrote in his second book on the nature and conduct of war that the strategic feint can often appear to be a sound approach on paper, but it rarely meets its planners’ expectations in practice. A successful feint requires the commitment of a significant amount of time and resources in order to ensure the deception is a credible one. An adversary is, however, rarely ensnared by diversionary traps like these as doing so requires as significant a redirection of resources on their part. Vast, national campaign apparatuses, much like grand armies, shift direction with all the grace and alacrity of a Suezmax oil tanker.

Republicans are unlikely to take the bait, and Democrats are sacrificing resources that would be better spent in a number of more competitive races. This may be the clearest indication yet that desperation is starting to take hold in DSCC headquarters.