As we pass the 100 day mark, and start to slide into my favorite time of year – campaign season – I’ve been spending some time reviewing the State Senate Races to try to determine which races we could expect to be the most hotly contested, and where humble observers like ourselves might see the respective political parties putting the most effort into.
It’s all terribly subjective, and can change on a dime. Issues crop up, fortunes fail, candidates prefer to devote themselves to things other than the campaign – and all efforts at punditry fall apart.
Keeping those disclaimers in mind, let’s take a snapshot glance at what I’m seeing as the top 5 South Dakota State Senate Races for 2012, as of the first days in August:
#5 – Angie Buhl (D) versus Kathy Miles (I)
This one is interesting because it involves an incumbent Democratic Legislator being taken on by the person she beat in the preceding primary, who is running as an independent. As opposed to there being bad blood between them directly, it’s more a case of currently the most disliked Democrat currently in the State Senate, being challenged by one who was fairly well liked by people on both sides of the aisle.
Being admonished in committee for her lack of decorum, and using over the top political rhetoric as standard operating procedure hasn’t earned Senator Buhl much respect among her peers. Compare that to Kathy Miles, who would sometimes break party lines on issues, and had cordial relations with State Senators on both sides of the aisle.
Personal style aside, you also have the composition of the legislative district which they are competing in, the Cathedral District of Sioux Falls. You have Kathy Miles, a practicing Catholic, versus Angie Buhl, who according to this You Tube Video, doesn’t practice so much anymore.
Buhl won one of the lowest primary turnouts in recent history, beating miles by 122 votes in a primary decided by fewer than 700 people. Watch for the turnout to be higher, and for people motivated to go to work for Miles.
#4 – Tim Begalka (R) versus Steve Street (D)
After being termed out of the House, House Minority Whip Steve Street is looking to make the move to the State Senate, taking on Incumbent State Senator Tim Begalka.
This district has traditionally been a mixed party district at best, being either represented by one or two members of wither party, depending on the way the wind was blowing that election, and Steve Street has had a consistent run as a Democratic State Representative.
Since winning a primary election victory over House Majority Leader Val Rausch, Begalka, identified as a tea-party Republican, has let his passions run hot and has chosen to chastise the people who supported his opponent, as opposed to bringing them into his orbit to solidify his victory.
This might be a mistake, as elections are won by addition, and not subtraction. It’s a very winnable race for him, but Begalka needs all hands and all votes on board in this competitive district.
Watch for Democrats to put funds and effort into this race. If Begalka wants to win, he needs to run the effective ground game he did in the primary, but he also needs a solid block of Republicans as his base.
#3 – Jim White (R) versus Chris Studer (D)
Huron is one of those hated places for Republicans. Why? There is little electoral consistency. For years, it used to be a stronghold of Republican votes. Then literally overnight, it became a black hole for the GOP. The Rounds years have helped that significantly, since he was related to most of the residents, but it’s still a very competitive town.
Jim White spent one term in the House before moving over to the Senate to attempt to take over Tom Hansen’s slot, so his familiarity with the electorate is still somewhat limited. Democrats have been touting Chris Studer, (co-chair of last months’ state democrat fake convention and this months’ real one) as one of their up and comers, so odds are they aren’t going to let him fall on his face.
But by the same token, given that he’s newer, and he’s making the leap to the Senate, I’d anticipate the GOP will match the Democrats dollar for dollar. Competitive district, new candidate versus a newer one on a seat that’s currently held by the GOP, I’d peg this as one of the races to watch.
#2 – Al Novstrup (R) versus Paul Dennert (D)
There’s a pattern here of the competitive challenges being in competitive districts. And for Republicans, it doesn’t get more competitive than the Democratic stronghold of Aberdeen.
Both candidates in this race are electoral forces, Novstrup destroying his competition in 2010 by a margin of 60-40%, and in the last house race, Dennert left his next closest competitor behind by about 600 votes, and the next one about 150 more. Clearly, both men know how to campaign.
The advantage in this race is automatically Novstrup’s, because unlike Dennert, he lives in the district, and Dennert had to move into it after redistricting. But, redistricting is much like hitting a big reset button, so everyone is dealing with newness and confusion.
When I look at races, I’m mindful of demographics, but more concerned with how strong the competitors will campaign. To me that’s the indicator. And I see this one as a knock down drag-out.
They both know how to campaign, and they both will. And both parties will be very interested in the outcome.
#1 – Tim Rave (R) versus Dan Ahlers (D)
This is the race that has everything. It is a grudge match from last election. It has tighter party registration margins after redistricting. It’s at the edge of the biggest media market in the state. And it has the added attraction of one of the competitors being the State Republican Party chairman.
Last election, Dan Ahlers ran a middling campaign, doing silly things like a last minute attack on Rave for being pro-life… in a largely catholic or otherwise religious conservative district. At the same time, Tim Rave’s campaign was hitting on all cylinders, and brought in significant enough margins in Hanson and McCook to offset a 300 vote deficit in Minnehaha county.
This year, same competitors looking at the mistakes and successes of last year, while at the same time, Rave has to bear the burden of helming the SDGOP.It’s inescapable that when you’re the chair, you get the phone calls.
As far as the opposition is concerned this makes the race more about bragging rights, and less about good governance. They want to take Rave out.
Watch for money to go into this race on the Democrat’s side. Rave has to walk a tightrope in his own race to separate party affairs from those of his district, so he possibly isn’t as vocal as he could be.
But with as many friends as he has willing to go to work for him, he can make it up by running a well-oiled effort, that builds on the successes of his victory in 2010.
OK – That’s my take on Top Five South Dakota State Senate Races – Early August Edition. Thoughts, comments, honorable mentions? You have the floor.