Update 2014.04.16 10:20 CDT:
Tasi Livermont of Sustainable Dakota offers some video clips of the SDNA debate on Youtube! Yay, Tasi!

The South Dakota Newspaper Association hosted the first public forum featuring all of the ballot-qualified Republican candidates for South Dakota's open U.S. Senate seat yesterday morning in Pierre. After reviewing the video, I offer the following summary of the candidates' responses to the ten questions presented.

1. Jonathan Ellis of that Sioux Falls paper opened by asking the candidates if their response to Russia's annexation to Crimea would have been closer to Senator John McCain's response or Senator Rand Paul's. (For the record, Senator McCain has advocated "sanctioning Russian officials, isolating Russia internationally,... increasing NATO’s military presence and exercises on its eastern frontier..." and "making every effort to support and resupply Ukrainian patriots." Senator Paul seems to take a less interventionist, more diplomatic position, although he has sent contradictory signals.

  • The first words out of Marion Michael Rounds's mouth were an unforced error: he said he wasn't in the Senate when Russia annexed Crimea, so he would not answer a hypothetical question. Rounds then resorted to hypothetical history, saying that if we had a better energy policy and if we would have exported more fuel to Ukraine, then the U.S. could have responded more strongly to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
  • Stace Nelson first words were a clear and honest poke at the man sitting right next to him: "I'll respond to your actual question: I would have stood with Rand Paul." Citing his two decades of military experience overseas and his children who serve (daughter in Navy, son in Coast Guard), Nelson said he would only commit troops where our national security is at stake. He mentioned no specific action to take against Russia.
  • Jason Ravnsborg invoked Reagan's "peace through strength" but did not elaborate on what strength he wanted to project to push Russia toward more peaceable action. He did speak of his own work with NATO forces and the need for diplomats to work out solutions. Tacking toward's Rounds's perhaps broader view, Ravnsborg said our deficit hinders our ability to achieve robust foreign policy goals.
  • Larry Rhoden said the Obama Administration has made such a mess of foreign policy that it's hard to answer the question. He joined Nelson in saying he'd have stood with Rand Paul. He joined Rounds in saying we need to promote good foreign policy with good energy policy... although his energy policy seems to boil down to letting the energy industry do whatever they want because, you know, the free market just magically solves everything.
  • Score: +1 for Nelson for directly addressing the question. –1 for Rounds for needless dodge.

2. Katie Zerr of the Mobridge Tribune asked the candidates to propose alternatives for the eight million Americans who've signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

  • Nelson took his turn at not answering the question. He said he wants to repeal or defund the ACA, but he mentioned no alternative. He waded into his preferred pitch to the hard right that Rounds fought efforts to block the ACA in the state Legislature (including, noteworthily, a bill brought by conservative Independent challenger Gordon Howie, whose entrance into the race this month raises doubts about conservative faith in Nelson's campaign). He said Rounds put in for millions in federal grants to implement the ACA in South Dakota. None of that tells folks helped by the ACA what a Senator Nelson would do to help them when he pulls the health care rug out from under their feet.
  • More aptly responding, Ravnsborg said the GOP can't just be the party of No. He repeated his support for Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn's Patient CARE Act, package of comprehensive insurance reform, tort reform, and targeted tax cuts that in the real world makes things worse and the fantasy Republican world of the American Enterprise Institute lacks detail and compromises too much with the ACA.
  • Rhoden advocated free market replacements like health savings accounts (which aren't a replacement, since we already have them, and which involve the IRS in your health care spending just like the ACA). Rhoden poked at Rounds for not supporting selling insurance across state lines.
  • Rounds let Nelson draw him in and spent the first half of his response asserting that he and Attorney General Marty Jackley worked hard to oppose the ACA. Rounds blipped that he likes Senator Coburn's plan, too, but then went back to saying the ACA broke a system that was working in South Dakota with 93% of people insured and over a dozen companies competing for health insurance business. Rounds also tried to work in the "ACA kills Medicare" point that Republicans seem ready to use again to scare seniors who benefit from robust government health insurance into voting for candidates who would deny younger Americans a much less robust health coverage program.
  • Score: +1 for Ravnsborg, for showing he's reading specific (if stupid) plans. –1 for Nelson for not responding to the question, put +1 for drawing Rounds away from the immediate question too.

3. Lance Nixon of the Pierre Capital Journal asked the candidates for their thoughts on last October's federal shutdown: was it effective, and would they support a similar action?

  • Ravnsborg said the number-one issue he hears from South Dakotans is their frustration that Washington doesn't get things done (interesting: is this conservative suggesting that South Dakotans want Washington to do more things?). With none of Rounds's hesitance to talk hypotheticals, Ravnsborg says he would have started budget negotiations sooner. He said shutting down the government is the "most powerful extreme position" that should be reserved for extreme situations. He did not explain what constitutes an "extreme situation."
  • Rhoden said he agrees with much of what Ravnsborg said. Rhoden said the October shutdown was not productive and we should have acted sooner. However, he appeared to promise more kamikaze fiscal votes, as he said he would refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling unless it was tied to a vote for a balanced budget amendment. Rounds also felt it relevant to this question to mention that, as Majority Leader in the South Dakota Senate, he found 90% of problems can be solved if you bring sides together and communicate. (Interestingly, in his closing statement, Rhoden said 90% of our problems are brought about by President Obama. So by Rhoden's logic, if we just talk to President Obama, we'll solve all of our problems, right?)
  • Rounds softly reheated his opposition to the government shutdown, saying there was no game plan (I assume he means the GOP leadership had no game plan) during the shutdown and that it left South Dakota ranchers without help while no one worked on the Farm Bill (what?! Paging Congresswoman Noem...). But Rounds drifted off as well to say we need to communicate better, and those darn Democrats in the Senate don't communicate with the House. (Evidently, for Rounds, "communicate" means "capitulate."
  • Nelson said he'd have voted along with Senator Ted Cruz against raising the debt ceiling. Nelson took a harder tank-the-economy line than Rhoden: he said he won't vote to increase the debt ceiling, period, because the national debt is the number-one threat to national security. (Paging President Putin: Senator Nelson will hand you victory in the next arms race.) Nelson played some vote word games, saying that folks like Ted Cruz didn't vote to shut down the government; they voted on the merits of the bill before them to increase the debt ceiling. Nelson likened the debt-ceiling votes to his votes against South Dakota state budgets: he didn't vote to shut down South Dakota government, but he did vote against increased spending.
  • Score: +1 to Rhoden and to Nelson for staking out specific positions on debt-ceiling votes

4. Ellis asks the number-one question I wanted: EB-5! Support, change?

  • Ravnsborg says Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley has it correct: either end the EB-5 visa investment program or substantially reform it. Ravnsborg says EB-5 sells our citizenship and picks winners and losers in the marketplace. He says we lost $80 million in the EB-5-backed Northern Beef Packers (Ravnsborg misstates dollar figures: NBP made $95 million in foreign investors' EB-5 money disappear, plus the nearly 10% fees they paid to friends of Mike Rounds; by my count, the state lost $2.9 million in NBP handouts).
  • After six months of intense media coverage of the scandal that could give any serious challenger the talking points he needs to take down the frontrunner, Rhoden still fumbles for the meek response that he needs a lot more facts in front of him before he can declare he opposes EB-5. Rhoden evidently has enough facts before him to say that EB-5 has economic development potential but that South Dakota went wrong in not imposing enough oversight. (So Larry, what you're saying is that Mike Rounds went wrong when he privatized EB-5 management, right? If you want the point, you've got to say it!)
  • Rounds, who now plays Michael Douglas to EB-5's Glenn Close but who keeps boinking her instead of drowning her in the bathtub as he should before she kills someone he loves, says EB-5 is all about creating job opportunities, and we can't turn down job opportunities in the middle of a recession (what? says the BEA). He pokes back at Ravnsborg (and any time the frontrunner pokes back, you guys are winning!) with semantics: EB-5 doesn't sell citizenship, just green cards. (Sure, Mike: try that distinction out at the next Tea Party forum.) Rounds claims South Dakota lost no taxpayer dollars on EB-5 (baloney at best, semantics at worst, if Rounds is parsing the argument that it was his beef plant NBP that lost the money and not his EB-5 program). To conclude with both irrelevancy and falsehood, Rounds claims to have created 28,000 jobs while governor (South Dakota Department of Labor statistics show 406,405 jobs in South Dakota in January 2003 and 422,445 jobs in Janaury 2011; net increase during Rounds administration: 16,040, meaning Rounds is exaggerating by 75%.)
  • Nelson reminds the crowd that he brought a bill to end South Dakota's use of EB-5. Nelson says Richard Benda died because EB-5 failed in Aberdeen. Nelson said Rounds's calling that successful "takes the wind out of me." Nelson repeated Senator Grassley's point that EB-5 is a huge security risk to the U.S., opening us to the machinations of the Communist Chinese. Nelson says he will move to repeal any crony capitalism in the U.S. Senate.
  • Score: +1 for Ravnsborg and Nelson for citing big Republican Grassley to back EB-5 concerns. Another +1 for Nelson for saying "Benda" two feet from Rounds's ears. –1 Rounds for semantics, –1 for false and irrelevant job stats.

5. Zerr asks the candidates if they support the cuts proposed in Rep. Paul Ryan's budget and how they would justify those cuts to the folks hurt thereby. Darn liberal media.

  • Rhoden still can't work up the gumption for a straight answer. He won't say he supports the Ryan plan carte blanche, but he says he does support "dramatic steps." Allow growth, curb spending, and food stamps are rife with abuse (no, they are not).
  • Like Rhoden, Rounds dodges. He commends Ryan for what he's done and looks forward to working with Ryan. Rounds relaunches his statement that the ACA takes $743 billion from Medicare but doesn't mention that the Ryan budget keeps those same Medicare cuts. Non-sequiturally, Rounds claims South Dakota balances its budget every year.
  • Nelson can't help swinging at Rounds's pitches... but Nelson is doing his job as underdog and attack dog. He says he dealt with the aftermath of Rounds's busted budget in 2011, when he had to help cut the state budget 10%. On the question itself, Nelson says the Ryan budget doesn't go far enough (liberals cheering for a Nelson upset in the primary, pay attention!). Nelson also claims we have to look harder at the foreign assistance larded into our defense budget (1% of the entire budget goes to foreign aid; 14% of the defense budget goes to overseas military operations).
  • Ravnsborg says he likes the Ryan plan but prefers to lower tax rates and cut everything, everything by 1%. He also complains that we are cutting veterans benefits while spending big money on breast implants (sorta true! See Tom Coburn's complaint that hookers can deduct breast implants on their tax returns).
  • Score: +1 to Rhoden for using a French phrase (but –1 tactically, since GOP voters will hear elitist socialism).

6. Nixon asks whether out-of-state poltiical contributions affect the autonomy of small states like South Dakota. *Q6 Nixon: more than half of itemized contribs from outside state; SD Law Review 2010 asks whether out-state polit contribs affect small state's autonomy.

  • Straight to the Score: –1 for everyone, because no one answered the question. They talked about their own funding, tried to say other questions were bigger, but didn't address what that money buys and what South Dakotans lose, if anything, when our candidates take it.
  • In political theater, Nelson whacked Rounds for bragging about raising $9 million. In the only moderator-authorized special rebuttal of the event, Mark Roby allowed Mike Rounds an extra minute to respond to that attack, and Rounds bit. He said Nelson is the only he knows who's gotten kicked out of caucus for misbehavior. Rounds slammed Nelson for having a press conference with an Obama-backing, tax-hiking, gun-background-checking, ACA-steroiding, Keystone-XL-opposing Democrat (yes, Rounds said all that) to bash Republicans. Nelson asked for a chance to respond to that attack, Roby said the rules said no, and Nelson delivered a hilarious Gleasonesque take. Always cast a big guy in your show.

7. Ellis asked the candidates how we can build economic development on our poverty-stricken Indian reservations.

  • Nelson noted he attended the Native American economic development forum last November with Democrat Rick Weiland. He noted that Rounds and Rhoden did not. Nelson said the folks at that forum said they want someone who will show up and engage with them. Nelson did not enunciate any policy that would address the issue Ellis raised.
  • Ravnsborg says he's the the only candidate who's gone to the reservation to meet with Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer, who Ravnsborg says found it refreshing that a Republican comes to his territory. Ravnsborg said Indians are the fastest growing demographic in state, and we need to listen see if we can help. Finally getting to real policy, Ravnsborg plugged the "Save the VA" effort in Hot Springs as a way to maintain vital services for veterans on the reservation. (Remember, kids: that's government-run health care.)
  • Rhoden talked about talking, too. He said he has an old Indian friend, David Bald Eagle, whose family has turned out great. If all Indians would just be like his friend, everything would be fine. Government is the problem, not the solution, says Rhoden.
  • Rounds said he met with tribal leaders when he was governor. Indian Health Services is failing, the feds control Indians' lives, and we need to just let people have businesses on the reservation.
  • Score: White men talk much, propose little. No points.

8. Zerr asks what the GOP can do to attract more lady candidates.

  • Ravnsborg does not answer the question. He says we need to elect the best person and be all-inclusive like Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Rhoden does not answer the question. He says the lady legislators he's worked with are "well-equipped."
  • Rounds does not answer the question. He says women are special and we need participation from both women and men.
  • Nelson kinda answers the question. He first jokes that he's done his part by raising four daughters who all lean hard to the right (Fulton boys, keep that in mind... as if any of you would dare ask Stace Nelson to date one of his daughters in the first place). He then seriously ties the question to his main campaign message: the GOP has trouble drawing women, youth, and others because they want to see a party following principles. Instead, they see the GOP not living up to its professed principles on spending, taxes, and crony capitalism.
  • Score: +1 for Nelson for at least turning the question from platitudes to a specific alignment with one of his main messages.

9. Nixon asks the candidates if they believe climate change is real and human-influenced and what action government should take against it.

  • I don't think Ravnsborg said the words "climate change" once. He said we need a comprehensive energy policy and not President Obama's war on coal. He said other countries need good energy policies, too, but that we need to use our own resources and build Keystone XL.
  • Rhoden opens with, "To address the question... there are opposing views." But he avoids any evaluation of those views. He just says carbon sequestration and cap-and-trade are "ridiculous" policies, and that the U.S. implementing such policies without global cooperation is like "a no-pee zone in a swimming pool."
  • Rounds forgets the question is about climate change and says U.S. energy policy is bad because focused only on carbon-based fuels, making it tough on our own people to make our own energy. He says that if we don't use our coal and oil, "it'll get shipped to China" and thus we should pass Keystone XL (which, I repeat, will ship North American oil to China). Rounds is still whining about Big Stone II, trying to blame the EPA for the project's failure to offer a profitable business case.
  • Nelson blamed Mother Nature for pollution (oil seeping up from the sea floor), said we need to use our oil and be energy independent, but also avoided answering the question
  • Score: –1 for all for non-answers (unless we be generous and read their avoidance of the issue as their signal that they don't think the issue exists), but +1 back to Rhoden for saying "no-pee zone".

10. Ellis gets the last question and asks what specific programs the candidates would cut.

  • Rhoden: Eliminate the EPA!
  • Rounds: Eliminate the Department of Education (har dee har har!), and pass the Raines Act to require any new regulation causing more than $100 million in economic impact to receive Congressional approval. But for Pete's sake, spend more money to give our soldiers the best weapons in the world. Peace through strength!
  • Nelson: Whack the Department of Energy and EPA, reduce the IRS severely... but don't explode government the way the other guys at this forum did. Nelson says those guys (and he means Rounds and Rhoden, because Ravnsborg is a military man, too) have no military experience and can't talk credibly about military spending. He says the candidates bought by special interests (and he means Rounds) are more interested in sending planes and tanks to Egypt and making money. Nelson says he's the only candidate with a record of cutting government and opposing spending.
  • Ravnsborg: eliminate Education and Energy, then follow Senator Coburn's Wastebook to eliminate redundancy. Ravnsborg says he himself identified a $250K budget error in Afghanistan and saved Uncle Sam some cash.
  • Score: +1 to Rounds and Ravnsborg for citing specific legislative proposals.

I invite your own scorecards on the validity of the candidates' policy responses, but I agree with John Tsitrian's assessment: Stace Nelson comes out of this race looking like the main challenger to Mike Rounds's coronation. Nelson lodged the most aggressive and forthright critiques of the frontrunner's record, and that frontrunner showed he's most afraid of those critiques by attacking back. And note that when Rounds most directly attacked Nelson on the caucus-expulsion and standing with Weiland, Rounds was not at all responding to the issue of his seeking $9 million in big campaign donations; he was throwing up a smokescreen of other insults about Nelson himself. If Rounds weren't worried, he wouldn't be responding. And a face-to-face debate forces Rounds to respond, makes him look weaker, and opens the door for every legitimate challenger to score points.

Everyone in the room but Rounds is thus shouting: More debates! More debates!