Cowboy poet and former South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler looks for his post-partisan comeback. Photo via Facebook“I’ve been standing about four feet away from somebody who was shot in the head. I’ve seen the white gray of a human brain,” Larry Pressler tells me. The year was 1968. Then an Army lieutenant, the future three-term Republican Senator was in an outfit escorting supply trucks during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. A fellow GI, whom Pressler won’t name, was right next to him. “He was so hot he took his helmet off for a bit,” which proved to be bait for snipers hiding along the route. It was the stuff of Apocalypse Now. The stuff of PTSD.
It’s a little-discussed side of the man who’s shaking up the Senate race in South Dakota, where former Republican governor Mike Rounds, a once popular conservative, was long considered a solid favorite to win the red state's open seat. But Rounds fell behind in fundraising and began losing support amid headlines about a mushrooming investigation into the state’s handling of a foreign-investor green-card program during his governorship. The slippage was compounded by a $1.25 million ad campaign against Rounds from Laurence Lessig’s anti–political money Mayday PAC, opening up an opportunity for the once dismissable Democratic candidate Rick Weiland, and also for Pressler, who is running as an independent in this four-way contest (Gordon Howe, a conservative independent, is also in the mix).Now, a race that was considered all but locked up for the GOP has turned into an unpredictable free-for-all. Recent polls have shown Weiland and Pressler gaining ground, trading off for second place behind Rounds. Democrats and Republicans have sent in their cavalries to prop up their respective candidates, with the senatorial campaign committees from both parties each committing $1 million to flood the South Dakota airwaves in the final weeks of the campaign. But it is Pressler, an underfunded relic from a bygone political era, who is the real wildcard, turning South Dakota into an unexpected battleground that could potentially determine which party controls the Senate after the midterms. He’s also easily the most interesting candidate running for office in 2014.
When I called Pressler’s campaign office last week to see how things were going, the candidate answered the phone himself and we chatted for 26 minutes. A major fundraiser during his four terms in the Senate, Pressler is bootstrapping his current campaign. He has just a single campaign staffer, and relies on his wife Harriet to drive him to campaign events, which usually include recitations of cowboy poetry. You might ask, what's cowboy poetry?“I’m doing a reading tonight about what it means to be a friend,” Pressler told me. “You might brand the calves differently, but you can be friends across the fence.”That message has been central to Pressler’s comeback campaign. A reliable conservative who won five state-wide victories as a Republican before losing a race for his fourth Senate term in 1996, Pressler won’t say whether he'll caucus with Democrats or Republicans if elected this time around. He claims to have voted for Barack Obama twice, but also says he backed Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries, and might have supported the Republican nominee had it not been for his position on health care for veterans, particularly those with PTSD. The issue is personal for Pressler, who was diagnosed with that condition after Vietnam.On paper, it’s hard to believe that Pressler himself was never a serious candidate for president (he ran once, but the campaign was short-lived). He's got the resume for it: He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of South Dakota, where he was president of the student body, and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. He served two combat tours in Vietnam, then graduated from Harvard Law School before being elected to Congress where he represented South Dakota for more than two decades.
Working to Pressler’s advantage this year is the fact that he is recognized and liked in South Dakota, with a 55 percent favorability rating that is higher than any of his opponents'. But at age 72, he is also a bit of a political antique. His campaign ads are mostly period pieces, including two that feature footage of Pressler declining a bribe he was offered in the FBI’s infamous ABSCAM sting depicted in American Hustle. Pressler tells the camera: “American Hustle shows the FBI making real-life bribes to American politicians. I know because as your US Senator, I turned them down.”But there are other, less flattering, details of Pressler’s past political life. Such as the fact that everyone wondered (maybe uncharitably) what led the FBI to target Pressler in the first place, or the stories about him using campaign money to pad his lifestyle. Or the (perhaps apocryphal) anecdote about him mistaking a closet door for the exit in a Senate hearing room. Or the fact that in 1998, the year after he lost his Senate seat, he considered running for mayor of Washington, DC, and—in a moment that has come back to haunt him—said, “I have lived in D.C. since 1971, longer than anyone running.”And if If Pressler sounds post-partisan today, his voting record in his last years in the Senate was not, the Weiland campaign says. According to VoteSmart.org, the National Education Association gave him a zero rating in 1996, as did the Human Rights Campaign and NARAL Pro Choice America, while National Right to Life gave him a perfect 100. Despite recently saying that he would consider overturning Roe v. Wade, Pressler told me that he supports the ruling, then added, perhaps hedging, that he supports it in the context of a South Dakota abortion law that he described as predicated on it. Pro-choice advocates have pronounced that law as one of the most draconian and invasive in the country. He also makes much of the fact that he supports legalizing gay marriage.
Critics say Pressler just makes your head spin. “If Larry’s changed on all these things he’s voted on in 18 years in the United States Senate, that’s fine,” Weiland told me in an interview. “He can explain why he voted the way he did.” But even with such a metamorphosis, Weiland added, “You can’t talk entitlement form like that and flip-flop in a year, and Roe v. Wade and flip-flop in a week.”“Larry’s telling people he’s Independent and I don’t doubt he’s changed positions on some things, but Larry’s record when he was in the Senate—he was more extreme than Jesse Helms. That’s not unimportant. Zero percent on women’s issues. You go right down the line. Zero percent on seniors,” said Weiland advisor Steve Jarding. “Maybe he’s changed on some things, but only Mitt Romney tried to change on everything—and that didn’t necessarily get him where he wanted to go.”It’s unlikely, though perhaps not impossible, that Pressler will win back his Senate seat, given that he’d raised only $108,000 through June 30, about half of which he borrowed from himself. But he will probably take in a number of votes that might otherwise gone to Rounds or Weiland. The question now is which candidate will benefit.“In South Dakota, it’s not completely clear who’s spoiling whom. If either Weiland or Pressler got out, I think the remaining candidate would beat Rounds,” said political science professor Larry Sabato, who runs the Center for Politics at University of Virginia.Pressler, of course, has an answer for that. “I’m not attacking the press because you guys buy ink by the barrel, but the press will report on an independent candidate as a spoiler: ‘Are you a spoiler?’ Or, ‘Who are you stealing more votes from?’ Well, who’s to assume they belong to someone in the first place?”Follow Timothy J. Burger on Twitter.Register to Vote on VICE