WASHINGTON — Republicans are hoping to use South Dakota's Democratic primary for Senate to fuel the war between the party and its progressive base.
To divide the troops, Republicans are criticizing Democrats for lining up behind conservative former Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin instead of the more liberal U.S. Attorney Brendon Johnson. Although the party is officially staying neutral in the primary to replace Sen. Tim Johnson, Democrats in the state believe the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is clearly backing Herseth-Sandlin over Johnson's son Brendon, who is a favorite of progressive activists.
Seeing a chance for mischief, the National Senatorial Campaign Committee Thursday released a web ad playing up Herseth-Sandlin's conservative political positions on gun control, abortion, and other issues in an effort to sow discord between Democrats and liberal outside organizations.
The minute-long web ad is a play on the NFL draft, showing the "Washington Democrats" draft Herseth-Sandlin over Johnson. "Progressive star Brendan Johnson was their man — what an upset!" one of the announcers says.
When one of the announcers points out that "Herseth Sandlin is married to a gun lobbyist," the second says, "OOFFFF! Progressive groups must be furious!"
"If Democrats in Washington want to pin their hopes on a pro-Bush lobbyist who's already lost two midterm elections, they can explain that decision to progressives. Considering the DSCC's public push for gay marriage, it is a bit surprising," NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring said. "Regardless, we'll soon find out whether Chuck Schumer gets to pick the candidate in the Mount Rushmore State or South Dakotans do."
The progressive Brendon Johnson is perhaps a better fit for the Senate's existing Democratic conference than Herseth-Sandlin, a conservative Democrat who vowed to vote for George W. Bush if the electoral college became deadlocked.
But for groups like the DSCC, deciding which candidate they want on the ballot has little to do with ideology and everything to do with electability. And for the politics of South Dakota, the calculus that goes into backing Herseth-Sandlin seems obvious: The red state hasn't been in play for years in any serious way on the presidential level, abortion is deeply unpopular, and gun ownership is a fundamental part of its culture.
UPDATE: DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky has this to say about the new ad: "National Republicans should focus more on recruiting candidates and raising money than political gimmicks which conveniently ignore the fact that conservative groups are promising a bruising primary for the GOP nomination in South Dakota — a problem Republicans are facing in numerous states up and down the map."
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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