Home > SD 2014 Ballot, South Dakota > A look at the SD State Fair US Senate debate

A look at the SD State Fair US Senate debate

September 5, 2014

Last week the SD State Fair included a debate between the four US Senate candidates aiming to replace Senator Johnson. All four candidates were in attendance for the debate: Independent Larry Pressler, Independent Gordon Howie, Democrat Rick Weiland, and Republican Mike Rounds.  Sadly this is the last opportunity SD voters will have to hear all four candidates speak together in one forum until the end of October. The Rounds campaign has said it will only take place in four debates, and the next one isn’t until October 23.

Overall I think this debate was a little more exciting than the gubernatorial debate. Below are some highlights from the debate with a few of my thoughts added in. This post will highlight some areas I think are worthy of attention, and possibly add some thoughts I felt were missing from the debate. The moderator of this debate said she would keep questions focused on ag policy and rural issues.

US Senate candidates at the SD State Fair: Larry Pressler, Gordon Howie, Rick Weiland, Mike Rounds. Photo by Ken Santema.

US Senate candidates at the SD State Fair: Larry Pressler, Gordon Howie, Rick Weiland, Mike Rounds. Photo by Ken Santema.

Opening Statements

Pressler – Pressler opened by saying he wants to “end some of the poisonous deadlocks between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, and in our government”. He noted he was very comfortable working as a professor and drawing his pension. But he felt the need to return to public service and do something about issues in DC. Most of his time in the opening statement was spent talking about his experience with 4-h and his history. He did reiterate that he pledges to serve only one term. Pressler states that is important because it means he will spend all of his time working on solutions, instead of trying to raise money for the next re-election. I’ve heard him say that a few times. But now I wonder if someone should ask if he thinks he spent too much time fundraising back when he was a US Senator….

Howie – Howie opened by saying he thinks the current US Senate and Presidential administration have turned their backs on the values that made the United States a good country. He wants voters to consider if they “want more of the same, or really want something different.” Howie said the other three candidates will give more of the same. In particular he called out Pressler and Weiland for their support of Obama. He called out Rounds for increasing the state budget, increasing taxes, and giving the State of SD a scandal with EB-5.  Howie says he is in this race to give voters a better choice. He contends he is true christian conservative candidate in this race; and that he would like to bring those principles to the US Senate. He took one last shot at Rounds in the end of his opening statement by saying “the record betrays the rhetoric”. This is only the beginning of the attacks thrown at Rounds during the debate.

Weiland – Weiland focused on the fact that he has been traveling the state visiting with voters and trying to understand the issues constituents find important. At the same time Weiland says Rounds was traveling the country raising money. During that time Weiland learned that “people want someone who is gonna stand up and will fight for them on the floor in the US Senate, and not for special interests”. Weiland pushed his belief that his approach to campaigning is the “honest approach”; implying that Rounds is taking a dishonest approach to campaigning. Weiland then went on to talk about free enterprise. He said big money and special interests have “raped” free enterprise. He also talked about Big Ag and Rounds Big Insurance Company. Actually I agree partially with Weialnd, big corporations and big special interest groups are helping to destroy free enterprise. But they are doing it through Big Government. As long as there is Big Government, there will always be Big special interest groups attacking free enterprise. If only the anti-Big candidates could see the problems with Big Corporations also apply equally (or even more so) to big Government.

Rounds – Rounds stated he was proud of his SD values (taking a talking point from Howie). Rounds also noted the US was at war when he was Governor. I’m not sure that was a good idea, with Obama about to bring the US into another war I can’t imagine why Rounds would want to associate himself with such a move. Rounds also got his Big talking points in to counter Weiland by talking about Big Government and the Big EPA. He said the SD farmers and ranchers know better how to run their operations than Big Government. Now if only we could combine Weiland and Rounds together, and they would realize Big Government mixed with anything Big is a bad combination.

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler wanted to go on the record saying he does not support all of Obama’s liberal policies. He said his support of Obama was for conservative reasons, because Republican presidents have typically had higher deficits and as an independent he wanted to protest how Republicans serve in DC. I will give Pressler credit here, he has been very consistent in his talking points about deficit spending, and I do think Obama’s Republican opponents in the last two elections would have dramatically increased the deficit beyond what Obama has been able to do.

Howie Rebuttal – Howie pointed out that Rounds said he will consider tax raises, but won’t say he will freeze taxes.

Weiland Rebuttal – Weiland joined in to ask Rounds why he added to many bureaucrats while serving as Governor.

Rounds Rebuttal – Rounds focused on low taxes during his time as Governor in partial reply to Howie. But he wouldn’t talk about the fact he added so many people to the state payroll as Weiland had mentioned.

Debt and Deficit

Pressler – This was a perfect question for Pressler. His focus has been on reducing the deficit. He would dramatically reduce the deficit by reducing foreign spending. Pressler would promote strategic military reform to cut costs, yet keep a strong military. He also noted he did not get rich as a lobbyist after serving as a Senator before (was that a dig Weilands former boss Daschle?). Finally he said government revenues have to be increased while corporate deductions must be reduced. There is a more in-depth post about Pressler’s deficit reduction ideas from the Alternative Candidate Forum. I think Pressler did the best job of staying focused on the intent of this question.

Howie – Howie first mentioned the record of those on the stage must be looked at. He reminds the audience that Rounds left SD a $127 million deficit in end of his time as Governor. Howie also mentioned Rounds “revenue enhancement program” that was designed to raise taxes in South Dakota. Howie said taxes needs to be cut and government growth needs to slow down. He mirrored Pressler by saying both Republicans and Democrats have been horrible about deficit spending. It is interesting that only the two Independent candidates are focused on the federal deficit.

Weiland – Weiland mentioned that current SD Governor Daugaard brags about fixing $127 million deficit when taking office, and that former Governor Rounds brags about balancing the budget. He then asks who was right? He also mentioned that SD Governor is required by law to balance the budget and that federal dollars are required to do so. Instead of saying what he would do to get rid of debt, Weiland focused on where he says the debt comes from. Most notably he says two unfunded wars and tax cuts for the rich caused the current debt situation. He also brought in Big Pharmaceutical companies as a source of the debt. The only question I would have followed up with Weiland on: will Weiland feel the same about the unfunded war Obama is about to get the US into? Or is this just a partisan talking point for him? (right now Rounds and Weiland are looking pretty similar).

Rounds – Rounds gave examples of how he would reduce the size of government by getting rid of the Department of Education and reigning in the EPA. He spent a lot of time talking about the bureaucracy in DC, and little time spent actually talking about the debt and deficit. He did mention a balanced budget amendment, but that would theoretically only handle the deficit, and would do nothing for the debt. He did bring up one talking point I agree with: bring down corporate taxes so companies aren’t forced to leave the country. I’ve blogged about that before.

Howie Rebuttal – “If it weren’t so laughable, it would be  sad”. That is what Howie had to say after listening to Rounds talk about large government, since he says Rounds had made government the second biggest industry in SD during his time as Governor. The punches on Rounds don’t let up at all.

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler said he would like to keep the Department of Education. He also pointed out that current Republican Senator Thune also disagrees with Rounds about eliminating the DOE. He tried to bring this into a teachers wage issue (but was cut off). I’m not sure where he was going with that. From the perspective of many, the Federal DOE adds so many administrative requirements to public education that it actually takes money away from teachers salary and puts them towards administrative salaries. I would think anyone worried about teacher pay and putting faith in teachers would advocate getting rid of the DOE.

Weiland Rebuttal – Weiland reiterated the point that Rounds used Obama Stimulus money to balance the SD budget. I think this is an issue SD has to fully debate. Do we as a state really want to be so dependent on the federal government?

Rounds Rebuttal – Rounds said he took the stimulus money because it would still be spent somewhere else. I disagree with Rounds on that. If enough Governors around the nation would be less happy to stick their hands out to the federal government, it would make it easier for the few actual fiscal conservatives in DC to reduce the amount of money redistributed by the federal government.

Economic Development

Howie – Howie pointed out that “some in government” use economic development programs to pick winners and losers in the market. In particular he says the EB-5 program as used by the Governor Rounds administration left a man dead with millions of taxpayer dollars gone forever. Howie would prefer a different concept in economic development. He then asked Rounds to testify under oath about all he knows in regards to the EB-5 program; and at the same time he wants Rounds to release his emails and phone records from when he was Governor. That is one point that really annoys me in SD, I can’t understand why such records for an elected official aren’t considered public records. Howie went on to say by testifying and releasing records it will either vindicate Rounds, or expose him for the crony-capitalist that Howie thinks Rounds is. I think Howie spent too much of his time going after Rounds on this, I would have like to have heard a solution as to how GOED could be reduced or actual ideas of how a State government can promote economic development without intervening in the market.

Weiland – Weiland pointed out he has an actual agricultural policy on his website (I found it here on his campaign blog). To promote economic development Weiland says E-30 is a solution he believes in. At the same time he wants to stop the Post Office closures because they help small businesses. Weiland promoted a partnership between the Federal, State, and Local governments to help agricultural producers. To me it sounds like Weiland wants more intervention at all levels of government. I’m not sure that is a winning issue outside of his core base, and even there I would wonder many hardcore Democrats want a Republican dominated Pierre more involved in the market.

Rounds – Rounds said he focused on agricultural economy while Governor, partly by supporting ethanol production. At the same time, Rounds said he promoted value added products for the agricultural industry. He mentioned livestock production and processing. Really? With the other candidates attacking him for the States involvement with the Aberdeen Beef Plant, Rounds is going to promote doing more of the same? Rounds did say the EPA working against agriculture is a big problem for farmers. He also promotes forcing the rail industry to carry grain instead of oil. Again, is there really a difference between Rounds and Weiland? They are both big promoters of government getting directly involved in the market.

Pressler – Pressler said the battle with the railroads has been lost, therefore grain is not moving. He also mentioned alternative crops and methods such as aqualculture. I wish Pressler had expanded on that. I had never heard of aquaculture being an option in SD, it is an interesting though if it can become a reality. Pressler somehow brought this question to being about housing for senior citizens. This was a question Pressler left me confused on.

Howie Rebuttal – Howie stated “government doesn’t create jobs, private industry creates jobs”. It was good to hear Howie talk on behalf of the free market.

Weiland Rebuttal – Weiland had to go after Rounds again, saying that Rounds was against ethanol before he was for it. Weiland also mentioned the money Rounds has received from Big Oil. (I knew he would get a Big in there!)

Rounds Rebuttal – Rounds mentioned the ’93 bill that created an ethanol subsidy. And that he supported it. I guess Weiland should have said that Rounds supported ethanol before he didn’t support it before he supported it. Or something like that…

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler mentioned self-sustaining Native Americans through agriculture.

XL Pipeline

Weiland – He started by saying he is opposed it. Weiland said he did his homework on Big Oil and found the promises made are not backed up. He says about 35 permanent jobs will be created by the pipeline, none of which are likely to be in SD. He then asked how sending oil overseas creates security here. Finally Welland basically made the case that the pipeline is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. I would’ve like to hear Weiland give an alternative to using the pipeline. I mention that because DC Democrats have labeled the Republicans the “Party of No”, with no alternatives after saying no. Well, here we have a case of a Democrat doing the same thing.

Rounds – Rounds is in favor of the XL pipeline, and hopes its one of several more to come. He says the pipelines will free up rail lines so grain can be moved to market. Rounds went on to say the EPA is stopping the oil pipeline to stop people from getting fuel. In turn, Rounds said, that will cause the EPA to be successful in raising the cost of fuel. Rounds then brought this question to being about energy independence. Then he took one of Weilands lines by saying “we need to take it back, take it back from the EPA”. Anti-EPA talking points work. I watched the crowd during this question. The sections of the crowd that weren’t obvious plants for any candidate reacted quite well to Rounds anti-EPA rant. I think Democrats should be taking note of that.

Pressler – Pressler said he would actually take action and walk into Obama’s office about the pipeline. He says the current Congressional delegation hasn’t worked very well on behalf of South Dakota. Pressler would press for a pipeline coming from ND to move oil, which in turn would free up rail cars. Pressler noted the XL pipeline won’t do anything to free up train engines and rail cars. Pressler noted that Governor Rounds let XL work out an agreement to come through SD without the state getting anything in return. Pressler also wants to work directly with Obama to fix problems with the EPA. Pressler took a more direct approach in answering this question. I don’t necessarily agree with Pressler, but he came the closest to actually dealing directly with the question.

Howie – Howie said “a pipeline is needed to ship some political rhetoric out of the state”. Then he called out Rounds for not taking the no-new-tax pledge (did Howie just call out political rhetoric, then use some of his own?) Howie noted he is in favor of XL. But he is not in favor of the bureaucrats deciding energy policy. Howie would rather energy policy be kept closer to those actually involved. Howie then went after Weiland’s line by saying “We’re not going to take it back, we’re going to move it forward”. I agree with some of what Howie had to say, but as a conservative I expected him to at least mention the eminent domain abuses associated with XL.

Weiland Rebuttal – Weiland basically asked if SD wants to go back to before the EPA was protecting the environment. He would maybe have more support with that talking point if the EPA hadn’t consistently gone beyond what it should be doing.

Rounds Rebuttal – Rounds just reiterated that oil shipping via pipeline will free up rail cars.

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler noted he is the only candidate providing a solution and will actually work on behalf of the people in South Dakota. I spoke with a few people after the debate that liked this approach from Pressler.

Howie Rebuttal – Howie pointed out that Pressler and Weiland will side with President Obama, and that Rounds will side with McConnell and Boehner. Howie said instead he will work on the side of South Dakotan’s.

Political Contributions

I know for a fact there were other agricultural-related questions given to the moderator. So it kind of annoyed me when a Citizens United question came up before some other agricultural questions. That is how the moderator said things would be prioritized.

Rounds – Rounds mentions the bureaucracy in DC answers to nobody, and those bureaucrats are not elected or held accountable by people. He also noted most rules handed down do not come from Congress, and instead come from bureaucrats. Rounds was basically making the case that political contributions made by people using their First Amendment protect rights are not the problem. Instead the problem is too much power handed over to bureaucrats with no accountability. I have to agree completely with Rounds in his answer. I can see where candidates are getting money, but I can’t see where money and power flows from the bureaucracy in DC. I think people worried about campaign contributions are looking at the wrong problem.

Pressler – Pressler noted he has only raised about 1% compared to his opponents. He also reiterated the fact that Senators spend half of their time in office raising money. Since he won’t run for a second term he could focus purely on issues (well, technically that would be a fifth term). Pressler also said as an independent he would not be tied to any money.

Howie – Howie noted that South Dakota rules allow Governor’s to award no-bid contracts, and then somehow the recipients of those no-bid contracts would somehow give money to that Governor’s campaign. He pointed out Rounds while talking about that. Then Howie said something that sums up my thoughts completely. Howie said everyone should be free to give as much money as they wish to anyone they wish to give to, but there should be complete transparency. I agree! Howie definitely gets a win on this question from my perspective.

Weiland – Weiland said his first priority as Senator would be to propose his Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United. Weiland went on to say that Big Government isn’t the problem, it is government that has bought off that is the problem. Again, I partially agree with Weiland. Special interest groups buying out government is a problem. But that problem can only be fixed by reducing the power of Big Government. Giving Big Government the power to take away free speech is NOT a solution to any current problem.

Rounds Rebuttal – Rounds came out to counter Weiland and state that Big Government is the problem. I agree Rounds.

Howie Rebuttal – Howie also came out to counter Weiland, and state that Big Government is the problem. But he also noted that Rounds ushered Big Government into South Dakota. I agree Howie.

Weiland Rebuttal – Now Weiland kind of backtracked, he said he wants smart government. So, he thinks Big Anything is bad, unless that anything is government………..

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler would like to offer legislation that would reward small donors? He would also like to co-sponsor an amendment limiting campaign spending? Just like Weiland, he doesn’t seem worried about the First Amendment….

Immigration 

Pressler – Pressler would back a proposal by former President Bush offering a path to citizenship. But before that he wants the borders secured by moving troops from overseas to the US southern border. He wants a five-year plan for workers to be able to attain citizenship. Pressler noted we should be trying to keep people who actually want to work. Such legislation would be one of his year one priorities. Pressler mentions his plan to secure the border with troops currently based in Europe often. It is actually surprising that aspect of his campaign doesn’t get more attention. Personally I would rather just pull out of Europe and create a new smaller, yet tough, military for defense. But I think many constituents would agree with Pressler and would support him on that issue.

Howie – Howie says the real problem here is the leaders in DC. He doesn’t see the borders getting secured because Republican leadership is fighting against conservatives. Howie said there needs to be new leadership in DC that is willing to secure the border. Howie noted he will not vote for any immigration reform unless the border is secured first. I do agree with Howie that the DC Republican’s are trying hard to get rid of people who actually cares about conservative stances. But I don’t see securing the border as the top immigration issue.

Weiland – Weiland noted the Senate passed an immigration bill last year and that Boehner would not allow it to be voted on. He then went on to say that the US allows corporations to bring illegal people in. Huh, he somehow made this about Big Business again? He then said EB-5 vista’s aren’t a good immigration policy. He would focus on actually fixing the immigration system. Its worth noting that Weiland didn’t even talk about the border.

Rounds – Rounds mirrored Howie and Pressler by saying the borders need to be secured. But he says there is a problem because Congress doesn’t trust the President to fix the problem. He also noted the immigration system needs to be modernized. Finally, he said nobody should be allowed to cut in line with immigration. He was referring to amnesty. But… Huh? Isn’t Rounds the one that supports and promotes EB-5??? EB-5 is a Vista program that allows people with money to cut in line getting a vista, and much closer to becoming citizens than those without money.

Pressler Rebuttal – Pressler was the only rebuttal on this question. Pressler said the SD Senator has to be someone who is able to speak with Obama about issues like immigration.

Work Across the Aisle

Howie – Howie said the first thing that has to be done is have civil conversations. He thanked Weiland for accepting an invitation to speak in a televised forum for 30 minutes. Then he mentioned Rounds didn’t answer the request and Presssler said he was too busy. Howie said he can have good conversations and can work with people he has serious disagreements with. Finally Howie said what I would consider the quote of the day: “If the only people I listen to are people with whom I agree, then I’m a pretty shallow thinker”. I think that is a statement everyone should think about for a while.

Weiland – Weiland said he would visit with every member of Congress (both houses) and talk to them about his Constitutional Amendment to restrict campaign speech. He wants to get the system away from raising money. Going forward, Weiland said he would look for common points with others to work on. Weiland really loses me by continually wanting to restrict free speech in the name of campaign finance. Personally I don’t see money as good or evil, in regards to politics it is simply a tool used to spread messages. That is a basic First Amendment protected right, and it is troubling that a US Senate candidate is campaigning on restricting the First Amendment.

Rounds – Rounds mentioned that Senator Reid has to go, so discussions can happen on the Senator floor again. He wants to restore decorum to the floor of the Senate so debates and amendments can happen again. He also named former SD Legislator Paul Dennert as an example of him working with someone who is a Democrat (Dennert happens to running for Brown County Commissioner this year).

Pressler – Pressler mentioned during his previous time in the Senate he had to work bi-partisan to get the Telecommunications Bill passed. He also noted that as an Independent Senator he would be more powerful. He then went on about air service in SD. I’m not sure how that applied to this question.

Closing Statements

Pressler – Pressler would like to have an issue-oriented campaign and focus on what he would actually do. Notably he would like to use cooperatives to fix healthcare. Perhaps Independent gubernatorial candidate Mike Myers and Pressler should have a discussion. For the most part during this debate I feel Pressler offered the most solutions (I think many were wrong, but he did offer something at least).

Howie – Howie highlighted how the Republicans and Democrats in DC like to point at each other as to who broke the system. Howie says the only way to fix the system is to actually send someone to DC that isn’t part of the current system. He also took a moment to mention that Rounds as Governor failed to stop legislation that would have stopped Obamacare in South Dakota on Tenth Amendment grounds. Howie tried to make the case that someone needs to be sent to DC that isn’t just full of rhetoric. I actually thought Howie did pretty good in this debate. I’m not sure that he will get a lot of support. But I do think he is worth considering for conservatives looking for an alternative to establishment Republicans.

Weiland – Weiland came out attacking Rounds for refusing to have more debates until the end of October. Weiland basically said Rounds will be taking a 54 day vacation while the other candidates are out working. Beyond that, Weiland mentioned he has been traveling the state and actually meeting with people. Then he had an awkward talking point where is promoting equal opportunities (always good), but it sounded like he wants equal outcomes. Equal opportunities and equal outcomes are two very different concepts. Finally Weiland said wants to tax corporations more. This is another area Weiland loses the libertarian part me. He wants to remove the collective rights that entail a corporation, but he wants to tax them like they are a person? I think he is completely wrong, and most SD voters I’ve spoken with don’t have an opinion one way or the other on the topic.  I really wish the Democrats could have found a US Senate candidate that was more connected with what the average South Dakotan actually cares about.

Rounds – Rounds finished by going into his usual talking points. He did spend a lot of time talking about Weiland’s plan to offer Medicare for everyone, and how it would destroy healthcare for the elderly. Overall Rounds took a lot of attacks during this debate. I don’t think it really hurt him much. His lack of respect for the organizations asking him to attend debates and forums over the next couple of months are likely to cost him more votes than any attacks done at this event.

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