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Kephart 5, to Challengers: Hire Outside Help, Blast Rounds on “Corporate Kleptocracy”

Last updated on 2013.09.04

2008 GOP primary Senate candidate Sam Kephart has a lot to say about this year's primary race. After getting his advice on how much money it takes to run a serious campaign (million, million-five, says Kephart), I asked the former candidate and current gadfly what he'd do if he were running in the already crowded 2014 field and what those candidates can learn from that last big Senate primary in South Dakota.

Heidelberger: If you were running in the 2014 GOP Senate primary, what would you do differently from your 2008 campaign?

Samuel Kephart, 2008 GOP U.S. Senate candidate
Samuel Kephart, 2008 GOP U.S. Senate candidate

Kephart: First off, I wouldn’t run in this cycle without having one or more “Daddy Warbucks” behind me... period!

I would spend much more time in the I-29 corridor doing retail politics, I’d hire Bill Hillsman to put together my media campaign, and I‘d hire the David Winston Group, out of D.C., to assist me in polishing my messaging and platform.

[CAH note: Hillsman helped Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura campaign in Minnesota. He also put together this blunt ad with Vikings punter Chris Kluwe in opposition to the gay-marriage ban Minnesotans defeated last year. He's been working mostly for Dems, so Stace Nelson might have a tough time hiring him.]

I’d do much more hard sell, yet fair, politics; soft sell and/or the thoughtful approach don’t really work for the masses of voters who don’t know you and won’t take the time to study the issues.

Many voters are, in my opinion, “fatally ignorant” of the reality that’s manipulating them; an unknown candidate must find a way to blast through that ignorance and indifference in a catchy, simple way that’s memorable.

I failed to do that in 2008, primarily due to the lack of cash to fund a proper media blitz.

Heidelberger: What can Mike Rounds learn from the 2008 primary to protect his GOP frontrunner status?

Kephart: Mike Rounds in 2013-2014 is a much more engaging personality and is more naturally charismatic than Joel Dykstra was back in 2007-2008.

If I’m Mike Rounds, I’d be doing everything I could, action-wise, not in words, to keep affirming and EARNING the public perception of my inevitability as the “chosen candidate” and presumptive winner in the minds of the voters.

However, there’s also a palpable risk here; there seems to be a certain smugness or arrogance that the likely winner takes on as the primary season matures. Joel Dykstra certainly exhibited that attitude that on some occasions.

I hope Rounds is both seemly and savvy enough NOT to fall into that trap. It really quietly pisses-off the folks who notice it and it could disaffect his supporters, because they expect some degree of respect and fair play for the competitors in the field during the campaign.

Heidelberger: What can challengers learn from the 2008 primary to help them upset Rounds?

Kephart: If I were running against Mike this year, I would directly, clearly, and repeatedly challenge his statement, which was the “teaser” headline of a recent fundraising letter I received, that he wants folks to “help me change Washington”.

I like Mike personally and I seriously respect how he’s successfully fought his way up the political ladder, but that phrase, “help me change Washington”, is the biggest, most inauthentic promise he’s ever put his name behind.

Mike, whether you love him or hate him is an accomplished and “certified” MASTER of inside political dealing.

No, I’m absolutely NOT accusing Mike Rounds of doing anything illegal. [CAH: That emphasis is in Kephart's original response.]

However, Mike has completely figured out, and has refined to a high art, how government can and does work with big business, how to capitalize on that nexus, and how to monetize the resulting symbiotic relationships.

Part of me deeply admires Mike’s street-smart abilities here, but morally I find it repugnant; it goes against my sense of fair play for Main Street and the “little guy.” But then again, what’s “fair” in politics? It’s a blood sport and, demonstrably, I was too damn naive, high-minded, and well-intended to figure that out ahead of time :(

Mike Rounds has many clear strengths and some substantial administrative experience, but any attempt on his part to position himself as an “outsider” championing the “little guy” or Main Street against Washington and the Feds is just plain bull---- and laughable.

Mike’s messaging folks need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something more believable. That particular headline and tagline is pure, unadulterated fantasy and denial of what’s so on their part.

Mike Rounds has some well-established, significant, relatively easy-to-prove vulnerabilities from his operating as an “insider” during his 8 years as Governor.

Those vulnerabilities could be made into a big, sticky negative by the right creative team, given the current American zeitgeist and emerging awareness of the corporate kleptocracy that has it’s boot on our collective necks. However, those Rounds vulnerabilities would need to be exploited surgically, competently, cleverly, and repeatedly by his opponents; I doubt they will be. There just isn’t the deep political savvy here to pull it off.

After he got elected, it took 3 or 4 years before John Thune got seduced by the power structure in D.C., became a protege of Senator John McCain, and got ‘hard-wired’ into the Beltway’s Machiavellian deals.

Mike, Rounds, if elected, will be going to D.C. already “LFB”... looking for business.


  1. MC 2013.09.02

    This show is just getting started. We both know all this can change very fast

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.09.02

    Very true. Will folks be able to change that situation faster if they take Sam's advice?

  3. Porter Lansing 2013.09.02

    In a crowded primary there is way to win the war without fighting a single battle....convince your opponents they can't win. - Sun Tzu and hire lots of hired guns.

  4. Joan 2013.09.02

    I have always thought Rounds was smug and arrogant. That is just the appearance he gives to me, anyway.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.09.02

    Joan, if more voters share that impression of Rounds, would Kephart's advice to go for the hard sell against Rounds turn them off as well?

  6. Michael Black 2013.09.02

    I spent 10 minutes or so visiting with Stace Nelson at the State Fair yesterday afternoon at the Republican building. He is very intense and is definitely a Marine. He looks younger and bigger in person than in pictures.
    I got a "Hi" from Mike Rounds as he walked past in the food court, but I didn't see anyone else working the crowds. Mr Weiland was scheduled to come in the afternoon while we were taking in the Great Pretenders show.
    It must be "interesting" for candidates and their workers to be campaigning based out of the same building.

  7. Rorschach 2013.09.02

    I have read the Kephart interview with great interest. Thank you Cory for conducting the interview and posting it. Sam gives great advice. I am soaking it up.

  8. grudznick 2013.09.02

    Mr. Rhoden was out shaking hands and looking eye-to-eye with thousands of South Dakotans. Mommas were bypassing the ice-cream tents to wheel their babies by Mr. Rhoden and all the west river folk clearly were on his side. The swing will be how many Brookings and Watertowners go for Rounds, and how many Sioux Fallsers go with Mr. Rhoden. The race is down to two.

  9. Valley Road 2013.09.02

    Every year at the fair there are about 12 people from west river...
    Nothing against Rhoden. He seemed like a nice guy.

  10. grudznick 2013.09.02

    West river controls the elections. If people chose not to go to Huron for whatever reason it is hard to fault them.

    Mr. Rhoden is a nice guy, and he has vast far reaching support, well into the flatlands.

  11. mike 2013.09.02

    Grudz: Rhoden doesn't have the energy at the base level. Only time will tell if his colleagues in the Senate and House pony up and support him and start taking him around their communities. If they don't he's done. He needs to show that he is viable in the money department. He is not viable today at the volunteer level. Stace will be a poor fundraiser and stick with enthusiastic supporters. All of Stace's shtick and organization will stay in the echo chamber if he doesn't raise money so Rhoden needs the money to guarantee a number 2 finish.

    If Rhoden can raise a substantial amount more than Nelson and substantially less than Rounds but still raise a respected amount he will energize his base and people who have never heard of him will start volunteering. But not if he sucks at fundraising like he sucks at working a crowd.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.09.02

    I like Stace's intensity. He shows that he gives a dang about what he's doing. We're similar in that regard.

  13. Troy Jones 2013.09.03

    Kephart has said many insightful things based on his experience.

    The one factor he is way under-estimating is he was not well-known around the state and had few people outside Spearfish who even knew him. In politics, the first question people ask among others is "what is KNOWN about him (character, experience, views)." And when the stares were blank, it said everything.

    For good or bad, people don't have to work very hard to find someone who knows all the GOP and the Dem Senate candidates. To find that same person who knew Kephart was darn hard work.

  14. mike 2013.09.03

    Good point Troy.

    I also believe Kephart was 2 years a head of his time. He is what conservatives were looking for when we voted for Noem. He has a knowledge about our country she does not. He has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the founding fathers and what they intended or would do.

    If Kephart is fed up with the GOP then he should run on his ideas. If Kephart ran as an independent the Stace Nelson volunteers would flock to him in the general (when they aren't helping Stace anymore).

  15. mike 2013.09.03

    Noem doesn't have an opinion 90% of the time and when she does she's advocating for more government spending or supporting NSA wiretapping.

  16. Douglas Wiken 2013.09.03

    "I like Stace's intensity. He shows that he gives a dang about what he's doing. We're similar in that regard."

    Does not keep either of you (or the rest of us for that matter) from being energetically wrong.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.09.04

    If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it with energy... including mistakes!

Comments are closed.