With South Dakota's Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson retiring and polls showing popular Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds a favorite for the nomination and general election, the state's open Senate seat has long been considered the likeliest anywhere to flip from Democrat to Republican in 2014.
But the inevitability of a GOP net gain of Johnson's seat has begun to be questioned after former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler signaled he might attempt a comeback as an independent.
"I'm seriously considering it," Pressler told Newsmax. "Maybe I can make a contribution to fixing the poisonous atmosphere that has led to the present national debt."
The first Vietnam veteran to win election to the House as a Republican, Pressler served as U.S. representative from 1974-78 and was senator from 1978 until his defeat at Johnson's hands in 1996.
Pressler also briefly made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and lost the Republican primary for the U.S. House in 2002.
Now 71, Pressler divides his time between Washington and South Dakota, teaching at the university level. As he quipped, "I haven't made the money other former senators usually make, as my wife frequently reminds me."
Noting that there are more than 100,000 independent voters in South Dakota, Pressler believes that the solution to the present situation "could be very simple. If Democrats give a little on Social Security and entitlements and Republicans give a little on raising taxes on the highest income-earners, then we could not only overcome the debt but go back to a period of prosperity like the 'Gilded '90's.'"
He also criticized the current spending cuts known as the sequester, saying "it's a bad way to do business."
Pressler told Newsmax he will make a decision about running by February.
His current exploration of an insurgent bid comes as Rounds, the two-term former governor, looms large as the Republican nominee. According to a just-completed Harper Poll, Rounds, also the former state attorney general, draws 58 percent of the vote among likely Republican voters and is viewed positively by 72 percent of GOP voters.
In contrast, his primary opponents are all in single digits in the survey: conservative state Rep. Stace Nelson of Fulton (8 percent), state Sen. Larry Rhoden (7 percent), and Sioux Falls physician and first-time candidate Annette Bosworth (6 percent).
As governor, Rounds supported traditional marriage and signed an outright ban on using state funds for abortions. Nevertheless, he remains controversial among some economic conservatives for using stimulus funds from the 2009 Recovery Act signed by President Barack Obama and for refusing to sign the no-tax pledge of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform group.
A spokesman for Rounds told Newsmax that the former governor "does not sign any pledges, period."
Former Republican Pressler certainly offers a contrast. He not only supports gay marriage but signed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court. He also voted for Barack Obama in 2008 — saying it was the first time he had ever voted Democrat — and campaigned for the president in 2012.
With heavyweight Democrats passing on the race, the Democratic nominee now appears certain to be Rick Weiland, 55, chief executive officer of the International Code Council (ICC) and former aide to onetime Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.
Whether Pressler makes a comeback and what impact he would have on the race remains to be seen. But a formidable independent bid could threaten what should be a Senate pick-up for Republicans.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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