I like Kurt Evans. I respect him for running for office. But I now abrogate that like and respect to discuss using Evans to serve my party’s political goals.
We’ve heard some media discussion of the possibility that Senator John Thune could get a “historic” second free pass with no one challenging him for his seat in 2016. I’ve counseled patience; the South Dakota Democratic Party will find a challenger for our very beatable senior Senator.
But Thune already has a challenger. Kurt Evans announced his Independent candidacy for Senate last December. With his Libertarian leanings, Evans has more inroads with Thune voters than any Democrat would. We may generally discount Evans’s ability to raise money and run a serious statewide race, but without breaking a big sweat, Evans got 20% of South Dakota voters to mark his name last year as the Libertarian candidate for state auditor against Republican Steve Barnett. (How many of that 20% chose Evans for lack of any other alternative and how many of them chose Evans on his own merits is open for debate.)
So Democrats, consider the possibilities. Suppose John Thune right now holds the same margin over any given Democrat by which Rep. Kristi Noem beat Corinna Robinson last year, 67% to 33%. If Kurt Evans can do half as well with the Independent label as Larry Pressler did in last year’s Senate race, he pulls Thune down below 60%. To win, a Democrat would only have to beat 46% instead of 50%. Eventual Democrat, Evans climbs a quarter of your electoral hill for you.
As I’m thinking about Kurt Evans’s usefulness to a Democrat challenging Thune, a Facebook friend points to this excerpt from Senator Claire McCaskill’s new memoir, in which she explains how she helped Todd Akin win the Missouri GOP primary in 2012 so she could beat him in the general election. The trick was casting Akin as the real conservative:
Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with the idea for a “dog whistle” ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would be heard only by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad [Senator Claire McCaskill, “How I Helped Todd Akin Win—So I Could Beat Him Later,” Politico, 2015.08.11].
How’d that ad go over with Missouri’s GOP voters?
It started to work. Our telephones were ringing off the hook with people saying, “Just because she’s telling me not to vote for him, I’m voting for him. That’s the best ad for Akin I’ve ever seen!” A man wrote a letter to the editor of the Springfield News Leader: “I think it’s time for someone who may be too conservative. Thank you, Senator McCaskill, for running that ad. You have helped me determine that my vote needs to go to Akin.” The editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advised those who were going to vote in the Republican primary to cast their ballot for Akin since he was “the most honest candidate. We suggest Mr. Akin because with him at least you’re sure of what you’re getting. He isn’t faking it when he endorses the worst of the GOP agenda. He actually believes it. What you see is what you get”[McCaskill, 2015.08.11].
Missouri’s 2012 Senate race differs significantly from South Dakota 2016. Evans would not face Thune in a primary. Our Democratic challenger would have to attack Evans directly in the general. Portraying Evans as the more rockily ribbed conservative might not drive moderates to check Dem when they would still have Thune’s comforting “R” on the ballot as a safety valve. And maybe just by laying this possibility out, I jinx it, alerting Evans himself to the danger of a nefarious liberal plot.
But eventual Democratic challenger, think about Evans. You already have a guy who wants to get on the ballot and cut Thune’s lead. Evans is an opportunity on which you can capitalize. How far can you stretch that opportunity?