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The Senate May Be at Stake in South Dakota

Oh, and the future of progressive politics, too

On Tuesday, a coalition of progressive groups announced they were pumping $2 million into the South Dakota Senate race. If you hadn’t previously known there was a Senate race in South Dakota this year, that’s probably forgivable. Mitt Romney carried the state by 18 points, and, as I write, The New York Times polling site gives former governor Mike Rounds a 99 percent chance of winning the seat. It’s not a campaign that seems to be crying out for saturation media coverage.

But thanks to the new cash infusion, that otherwise sound calculation is worth reconsidering. The polls consistently show Rounds hovering around 40 percent, 10-to-15 points ahead of his Democratic challenger, former congressional aide Rick Weiland. Weiland is, in turn, a few points ahead of former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, who is running as an independent.

There are few ways to read these numbers, but the most plausible interpretation is the there’s a potentially big anti-Rounds vote, which Weiland and Pressler are currently splitting. The former governor’s favorability rating is a mere 40 percent, and he’s on the wrong end of an escalating scandal. If one of his two main opponents were to emerge as the consensus “anti-Rounds,” they could very well take him out. A recent Survey USA poll showed Rounds and Weiland tied at 47 if Pressler were off the ballot.1

The $2 million could effectively bring about that scenario. Races with three viable candidates can be volatile, with voters deserting one of them as Election Day nears. With the amount of cash now backing Weiland, he could plausibly be the beneficiary of this dynamic (though Nate Silver argues that Pressler stands the better shot). All the more so when you consider that $2 million is an enormous sum in a state as cheap to advertise in as South Dakota. By comparison, Rounds reported having just over $1 million on hand as of late September. (On Wednesday, the official campaign arm of the Senate Democrats revealed it was following suit with a $1 million investment, though the money will fund an anti-Rounds, as opposed to pro-Weiland, effort.)

The immediate political stakes here are big enough. If you consult The Upshot, the Times polling site, it’s easy to see how Democrats wrack up 49 seats, but the fiftieth looks elusive. A Weiland win could keep the Senate in their hands.

But in fact the stakes are much higher. This spring, the Harvard professor and peripatetic reformer Lawrence Lessig launched Mayday, which billed itself as a Super PAC to end all Super PACs. The idea was to raise upward of $10 million from a combination of ordinary voters and altruistic rich people, then “hire the best bad-ass campaign shops we can find to make these contributions work.” By this Lessig meant he planned to take out candidates who are deep in the pockets of special interests, and to support candidates committed to campaign finance reform. If all that worked, Lessig and Mayday promised to be back in 2016. Except next time they’d try to raise a lot more cash—hundreds of millions rather than millions—by leveraging their 2014 success. The ambition is to change the entire complexion of Congress.

Phase one of the effort worked reasonably well: Lessig raised $6 million from ordinary folks (his target), and another $2 million plus from do-gooding one-percenters, whom he’d hoped would match the donations of the small-time donors. He anticipates raising another $2-2.5 million from the one-percenters before the midterms are over.

The hiccup came with Lessig’s initial forays into campaigning. Two of the first five candidates Mayday supported were right-wingers. That wasn’t crazy in itself—Lessig’s operating premise is that a successful reform movement must be bipartisan. The problem was that the return on an investment in these particular right-wingers wasn’t exactly obvious. In the case of one, a New Hampshire Tea-Partier named Jim Rubens, Mayday hoped to deny Scott Brown the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. It backfired. Brown wrapped up the nomination, and Lessig endured a wave of criticism for throwing more than $1.5 million at a bona fide knuckle-dragger with little chance of winning. “It was a strategically important mistake,” Lessig concedes, since the belly-flop made the pitch to rich donors a lot more difficult.  

Unfortunately, Rubens made considerably more sense than the other Republican investment, longtime North Carolina Representative Walter Jones, who isn’t facing serious opposition in his re-election bid. From the beginning, Mayday had hoped to prove that the issue of campaign finance reform, backed by sufficient firepower, can turn congressional elections. Other than token bipartisanship, it wasn’t clear what supporting Jones was supposed to prove, given that he was going to win with or without Mayday’s cash.

But South Dakota is a sufficiently big deal—a race no one thought a Democrat could compete in, much less an obscure populist like Weiland—that a victory could save the Mayday mission. “2016 is a contingent function,” says Lessig. “If we’re successful in 2014 … If we’re able to show up with a convincing brief about the effectiveness about this type of intervention, then it’s easier” to raise the hundreds of millions that will be necessary two years from now. For that matter, regardless of what a South Dakota win would mean for Mayday in 2016, it would send a terrifying message to incumbents and establishment candidates in parts of the country no one previously believed were competitive. Politicians would not only have to worry about crossing their powerful donors; they’d suddenly have to worry about crossing the reformers, too.

And there is a final piece that could be as important as the others, which has to do with the definition of “bad-ass.” When Lessig launched Mayday, the consultants he envisioned employing were the sort of high-priced Washington hands who cut issue ads for billionaires on behalf of their pet candidates. In the months since then, however, Mayday’s understanding of “bad-ass campaign shops” has evolved. Mayday has now essentially outsourced oversight of the $1 million it’s investing in South Dakota, as well as $3 million in other races, to a nonprofit grassroots outfit called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which styles itself in opposition to the professional consultant class.

The typical media consultant takes a 15 percent commission out of any media buy a campaign makes—potentially millions of dollars in a statewide race. Right off the bat, PCCC negotiated a zero-commission deal with the three ad consultants it retained. (They will receive a flat fee instead.) The typical consultant tends to favor slick, highly-produced ads. PCCC insists on ads featuring local voters—often Republicans—which it unearths from its list of nearly one million members, distributed across every congressional district in the country. The typical campaign uses some combination of paid staff, robots, and volunteers to encourage voters to turn up on Election Day, but it keeps their efforts separate, and the campaigns often lack a critical mass of volunteers needed to make calls efficiently. PCCC, using its "Call Out the Vote" program, can seamlessly supplement the campaigns' own efforts with calls from the humans on its membership list, providing that critical mass continuously. And because the list is so extensive, it can make calls at enormous volume in a very short period of time. It recently placed 23,000 get-out-the-vote calls in a single night in Minnesota, a scale the typical statewide campaign often achieves in a week.*  

Above all—and this is really the key—PCCC tests the effectiveness of these methods by using randomized experiments, part of a 15-year-long movement to bring the lessons of social science into the campaign realm. It puts more money and manpower behind the ads and techniques that work; it ditches or rethinks the ones that don’t. It employs an in-house analytics director to help make these judgments. “When [PCCC] pitched Mayday, I was blown away,” says longtime Republican media consultant Mark McKinnon, Lessig’s co-founder, via e-mail. “They are brilliant campaign managers who use a broad constellation of vendors to touch voters from every conceivable vantage point.”

While that may sound a bit dry and mechanical, it’s a fundamentally radical concept. By lowering the cost of running an effective campaign, the PCCC project could expand the universe of competitive races pretty dramatically. It would make it substantially easier to challenge an incumbent, and allow an incumbent to do his or her job without spending a preposterous amount of time fundraising. 

Let’s not kid ourselves: Preserving Democratic control of the Senate this year would be a big deal. But it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. There’s unlikely to be much legislating over the next two years regardless of which party claims the majority.2 And both the map in 2016 (24 Republicans will be defending Senate seats, versus only nine Democrats) and the on-the-ground reality (presidential-year levels of turnout among Democratic voters), make it extremely likely that Democrats would retake the chamber.

Which is to say, the Senate majority is arguably only the third most important storyline in South Dakota this fall. The other two could change politics for decades to come. 

*This paragraph has been corrected to provide a more accurate explanation of PCCC's value-added on get-out-the-vote calls. 

  1. The same poll showed Pressler defeating Rounds 54-39 if Weiland were to drop out. But Pressler is struggling to raise cash, and he seems more likely to caucus with Senate Republicans than with Democrats, limiting the motivation for outsiders to support him. 

  2. While confirming nominees will be easier for Obama under Democratic rule in the age of the nuclear option, a new Supreme Court Justice will still require 60 votes, making the highest profile confirmation fight a slog for him either way.