SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — A lifelong Democrat who lost an election to former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler nearly a quarter century ago is working to help Pressler get his old job back.
Ted Muenster, president emeritus of the USD Foundation, has been circulating petitions in Vermillion this week to get Pressler on the 2014 ballot as an independent candidate for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
"He makes a lot of sense, in terms of telling both political parties that they need to get off of their ideological high horses and do some compromising for the good of the country," said Muenster. "And I think that message is a valuable contribution to the Senate campaign this year."
Muenster is among several well-known South Dakota political figures from both parties lending a hand to Pressler, who served two terms in the House followed by three Senate terms from 1975 to 1997.
Former GOP state lawmaker Gene Abdallah, who hosts an annual law enforcement dinner that draws 1,500 people, said he's backing Pressler partly because he doesn't care for the field of Republican candidates and partly as a show of loyalty to the man who helped him become U.S. Marshal for South Dakota in 1982.
"I just felt I should return the favor," Abdallah said.
Don Frankenfeld, a Rapid City economist and lifelong Republican, said Pressler is a candidate with extraordinary credentials and the timing is right for an independent voice. Pressler was first elected to the U.S. House in 1974 during the Watergate scandal when Republicans were losing in droves, Frankenfeld said.
"He ran against an incumbent and won, and I think that was because he was a new fresh, likable face at a time when we were all kind of desperate for somebody who wasn't a conventional politician," he said. "And I think that time is back again."
Johnson announced last March that he was retiring from the Senate seat he has held since beating Pressler in the 1996 general election.
Rick Weiland, an ex-staffer for former Sen. Tom Daschle, is the lone Democratic candidate. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the most prominent Republican name in a crowded party field that includes Sioux Falls physician Annette Bosworth, Yankton attorney and Army Reserves Major Jason Ravnsborg and state lawmakers Larry Rhoden, of Union Center, and Stace Nelson, of Fulton.
Pressler needs to collect at least 3,300 valid signatures by April just to appear on the ballot, and voter registration numbers suggest that he faces an uphill battle if he gets to that point.
Of South Dakota's nearly 508,000 registered voters as of Jan. 15, just shy of 95,000 listed themselves as independent or having no party affiliation. That's a 27 percent increase from the 2006 general election, but the state has nearly 235,000 Republicans and nearly 177,000 Democrats, according to records from the South Dakota Secretary of State's office.
Pressler, a self-described "passionate centrist" or "moderate conservative," is taking the approach that the journey might be more important than the destination.
"We've got this situation that's just deadlocked and it becomes poisonous," said Pressler, 71. "And maybe in by old age I can do something to contribute."
Pressler, a Humboldt native and Rhodes scholar who now lectures at universities across the globe, said he expects to be attacked for his support of gay marriage and his voting for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But he said it's important to work with others to get things done for the state, and that includes keeping a good working relationship with the administration and lawmakers from different parties.
Frankenfeld said even if Pressler doesn't win, he'll have a positive effect on the race.
"I'm not saying that his victory is by any means a foregone conclusion," Frankenfeld said. "It's plausible, and in the meantime, he's going to make for a very interesting contest. The debates now are going to be much more fun to watch."
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