Well, that was unpleasant.
Let's begin this gray day with Independent candidate Larry Pressler's concession announcement, posted at 9 p.m. last night. As you read this letter, consider these two key questions:
- The Black Elk question: why do bad men and women grow fat while good men and women go lean?
- How do we dust ourselves off from defeat and re-engage with the electorate to help better candidates win next time?
We have lost the election. I have called Governor Rounds and congratulated him. I have also called Rick Weiland and Gordon Howie and congratulated them on a good campaign.
We may have lost this campaign at the polls today, but I feel that we have won by running to end the poisonous gridlock in Washington and incorporating South Dakota issues into the race [this quote and all subsequent from Larry Pressler, press release, 2014.11.04].
Pause there, Larry. You didn't win. We made no steps toward ending poisonous gridlock. Voters largely ignored issues and voted for party labels. We did not find the formula that helps your noble effort to talk policy come to the forefront of public discourse. The only people who won are some rather ill-spirited gloaters who must now shout to drown out their nagging consciences.
And I’m going to continue working on these issues with the Centrist Project and in my teaching in South Dakota Universities.
Now we're talking. Pressler comes out of political retirement and burns up his time and money just to get beaten up by both parties and their attack PACs. More than 80% of South Dakota voters spurn him. But Pressler doesn't go hide in a hole. He doesn't run away to Washington, D.C., or Paris. Instead of returning to Sciences Po and after-class coffee on the Left Bank, Pressler is going to teach in South Dakota (first class starts next week at University of Sioux Falls, Pressler tells me). Teaching will be an excellent way for Pressler to remain visible and relevant and spread his ideas about how democracy and government ought to work.
Pressler's engagement with the Centrist Project may also be helpful. No political change happens from one man shouting from the top of Lookout Mountain (see also, blogging!). Successful politicking is successful organizing. Change agents need a movement.
That said, the Centrist Project's inaugural year of movement didn't move much. They backed five candidates nationwide, including Pressler. They backed famous Independent Greg Orman in Kansas, too, and lost there, despite great media hype, to an aging creature of the Republican establishment. The Centrist Project's only "victory" came in Maine, where they seem to have had as much to do with moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins's re-election as my cousin had last weekend with helping Minnesota win by shouting "Skøl Vikings!"
When I began this journey nearly two years ago, one of my co-chairmen Don Frankenfeld of Rapid City and I sat down and decided that we would have a good, issues-oriented campaign, on a low-budget of individual contributors, but we’d offer the people of the state a positive, issues-oriented campaign. We did that.
Yes, you did that, Mr. Pressler, and I admire you for it. You and Frankenfeld and friends managed to draw 17% of the electorate with a tiny David campaign against two Goliaths on no budget. You can walk away from this election with an absolutely clean conscience.
But no budget, positivity, and issues, plus name recognition, nostalgia, and your 1929 John Deere D got you 17% and third place. How many more tractors does a guy like you need to pull 30% of Rounds voters and 30% of Weiland voters into your camp?
South Dakota has not been accustomed to U.S. Senate campaigns where there is very much issue debate. We have had some essentially uncontested U.S. Senate races, and frequently national politics has overridden local issues. I determined to issue one or two “local issues” press releases a week, which I have done. For example, last week, I issued a release on the need for a post-traumatic stress disorder center at the Hot Springs VA facility, since ten new centers have been authorized in the new VA bill. These are supposed to be located in serene areas, and Hot Springs certainly qualifies. I’ve also talked about better air service for South Dakota, and I’ve talked about a holocaust museum for Native Americans at Wounded Knee. I also raised several other local issues throughout our state on a weekly basis.
Yup. And South Dakotans mostly ignored those policy specifics and voted party label, image, and prejudice. We must not abandon issue debates; we must maintain faith that we can act as educators (Latin educere, to lead out) and get voters to really grapple with policy issues honestly and separately from their pop-culture fueled preconceptions. But we must also be ready to marshal all the other tools necessary to win: money, volunteers, get-out-the-vote, powerful rhetoric, and yes, negative advertising. (There is no moral failing using your opponent's name and the word "not" in the same sentence.)
In this campaign, we have enjoyed a number of wonderful endorsements from across the state, which have included the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Rapid City Journal, the Native Sun News and my good friend Tim Giago, the Mitchell Daily Republic, Agent John Good of the FBI, the chief corruption fighter in the United States, Steve Hemmingsen, legendary KELO anchor of 30 years, and people such as Gene Abdallah and Don Frankenfeld, Kim Ames-Wright of the South Dakota Voice of Independents, and many, many others. Perhaps more emotionally significant was the deathbed endorsement of my lifetime friend the late Gerald One Feather of Pine Ridge, which was announced by his widow, Ingrid One Feather, who invited me to speak at his funeral.
The endorsements do represent a victory. Contrary to what this blog may occasionally suggest, South Dakota newspaper editors are not idiots. They are relatively educated people who read more about politics than the average buffalo. Among those well-informed voters, Pressler's message resonated. And it never hurts to have the press recognize you're the real deal.
But endorsements are only a spark, not the fire. Pressler's Indian endorsements showed an ability to connect across South Dakota's gaping racial divide. But Giago and One Feather didn't move the electoral needle much; in Shannon County, Weiland still swamped Pressler 10 to 1. Maybe that's more party label prejudice; maybe that's just superior get-out-the-vote by the opposition.
I want to thank the volunteer MVP of this campaign, my wife Harriet. She was with me every step of the way from helping drive to events, doing the campaign’s accounting, answering phones, and thanking so many of the small contributors.
What happened at the end of this campaign is exactly why we started this campaign. We were hit with a tsunami of negative ads from the Republican and Democratic Parties and their affiliates. More money was spent in the last week against me than was raised in my entire campaign.
Yup. The big guys will continue to bring big guns to the fight. Captain America can hide behind his shield all day, but eventually, if he's going to save the world, he's got to punch Red Skull in the kisser.
I thank all my supporters for their hard work, and look forward to continuing to work on the issues that I raised in my campaign in the future. I am very grateful to all my contributors. Had this race been decided by South Dakotans, we believe the outcome would have been different, but we were hit with a deluge of out-of-state negative ads [Larry Pressler, press release, 2014.11.04].
It may soothe our prairie sensibility to think that this election is someone else's fault, that we can blame outsiders and keep our fantasy of our superior moral rightness intact. But South Dakotans are responsible for this outcome, Larry. South Dakotans saw all those ads. South Dakotans chose to ignore your policy proposals. A majority of South Dakotans who bothered to vote picked a man who, as you told them repeatedly, will be weakened by his own corruption. Lots of outside groups spent lots of big money to tell South Dakotans to jump off the cliff, but South Dakotans chose to jump.
We need to get South Dakotans to stop making bad choices. Larry, your good intentions and good policies are important elements of the lesson plan we need to change South Dakota. But they aren't enough. Mike Rounds, Dick Wadhams, and an obstructionist, regressive Republican Party continue to grow fat while good South Dakotans go lean... or go away. South Dakotans keep rejecting good candidates and good policies that would do South Dakota much more concrete good than the slogans of self-reliance! and repeal! and down with Obama!
I am heartened to know, however, Mr. Pressler, that you will be sticking around South Dakota to help us figure out, gather, and use the additional tools we need to restore South Dakota common sense. I'm with you. Let's work together and make it happen.