Rounds, Ahlers in race for South Dakota seat in U.S. Senate

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds won his seat in 2014, beating Democrat Rick Weiland by 20 points. Now in the 2020 election, Rounds faces Dan Ahlers, a Dell Rapids businessman who served six years in the state Legislature. 

The Senate seat is significant for South Dakota, a state with little influence in the House. Republicans have been the dominant force in South Dakota for decades, especially in recent years. Voters elected John Thune and Dusty Johnson to Congress in 2016 and put Kristi Noem in the governor’s office in 2018. 

Many of the issues this election are staples of South Dakota politics — health care reform and agriculture, among others. But 2020 also brings the coronavirus pandemic to the forefront of the discussion, as cases across the state continue to rise and American life is still uprooted. Rounds seeks to offer an experienced, pro-Trump option, while Ahlers aims to provide an alternative for Democrats and beleaguered conservatives alike.

Mike Rounds

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds is no stranger to public service. The Huron native spent 10 years in the statehouse and two terms as South Dakota governor before running for U.S. Senate. Compared to Sen. John Thune, who holds the second-highest position in the chamber, Rounds keeps a more low-key profile. This June, the incumbent faced a rare primary challenge from Scyller Borglum, a state representative whose campaign characterized the former governor as low on enthusiasm and leadership. However, with Republican leadership deeming Ahler’s campaign a “non-starter,” Rounds appears to be headed towards an easy, if uneventful reelection. But he doesn’t like the idea that he isn’t working for votes, especially from college students. 

“I don’t take any race for granted,” Rounds said.  “And I don’t accept the premise that just because you’re of a certain age, you think a certain way. I think that would be very disrespectful on my part. Part of my role is to convince and to explain the reason that I believe the way I believe.”

He said he paid off his student loans for ten years, and while he believes debt cancelation is “unfair,” the government should do more to limit the cost of public universities, make it easier to get loans and ensure a strong job market for college graduates. 

In 2014, Rounds ran on familiar issues — he was staunchly pro-life, pro-business and against government regulations. 

“I told people that I would literally bring South Dakota values to Washington, D.C.,” Rounds said. “I think I’ve done that.”

Rounds often points to well-known Republican victories, citing the Trump tax cuts and judicial appointments. But he also points to lesser-known efforts to roll back Obama-era legislation that regulated waterways, saying it was a burden for South Dakota farmers and ranchers.

He’s also built relationships with tribal chairmen over regular conference calls and meetings. 

“That consultation shows respect,” said Rounds, who argues the federal government should do more to communicate with Native American leadership.

Rounds said in terms of COVID-19, people should wear masks and understand that “it’s much more far-reaching than just the individuals who actually get sick.” 

The senator said efforts to produce a second round of economic stimulus in response to the virus will come to fruition after the election, and what seems like unprecedented levels of congressional dysfunction is actually typical for an election year.

“It’s just more enhanced this particular year because there is no give-and-take between the [Democratic] leadership and the White House,” Rounds said. 

Rounds also points to police reform as an issue where Democrats hijacked good-faith legislation in order to play politics. He said he supports more accountability for police. Along with providing more resources for officers, Rounds argues that “when you do have a rogue, that rogue needs to be challenged by the other, younger officers.”

Rounds said when it comes to issues like racism, Americans should look to the Constitution for the means to create a more equal society. 

 “We’ve got the greatest system that’s ever been developed in the world today. We’re never going to get it perfect, but we can make it better.” 

Dan Ahlers

Since 2014, Democrats have struggled to gain a foothold in the Rushmore state. The state party faced financial issues and internal upheaval in 2019 and failed to get a Democrat on the 2020 ballot for the House. But Daniel Ahlers believes that being a Democrat in a red state is an asset. His pitch is real, bipartisan progress on issues that matter.

“The issues that we face — a strong economy, a good education or affordable healthcare — they’re not party issues,” Ahlers said. “They’re people issues. I understand that not addressing these problems [has] a real impact on real people.”

Ahlers graduated from Augustana in 1997 and went on to represent Dell Rapids in the state Legislature for six years. He said his personal experience with student debt gives him insight into the issues that college students face.

“I worked 40 or 50 hours a week to pay for [college] and still had quite a bit of debt,” Ahlers said. “That’s a challenge that a lot of our college students are facing today. […] You should be able to get a good education at an affordable rate.”

In a lot of ways, Ahlers is similar to Rounds. On the topic of Native American relations, they both agree that the government should emphasize communication with tribal leadership and work to reform the Indian Health Service, the federal agency that has been reported to consistently administer subpar care on reservations. But Ahlers also argues that the federal government should take bolder steps. 

“I think that there’s an opportunity to sit down and work with leaders from other states to really start addressing our treaty obligations with our native populations,” Ahlers said. He told Native Sun News Today, “If that means making land deals at the state, federal or private level then we need to sit down and figure it out.” 

Despite his stronger stances on Native American relations, Ahlers sees himself as relatively moderate. He said his experience with compromising at the state level is needed in Washington, D.C., where legislators are too focused on party politics. 

“You see that with my opponent. He’s always worked in the majority, so he’s never had to cross party lines and make the effort to do that,” Ahlers said. “There are a lot of people in Congress like that. I’ve always worked in the minority. I’ve had to cross party lines in order to get things done, and I know how to do it. I have a record of doing it.”

As a Democrat representing a red state, Ahlers may find that his party is at odds with many of his constituents, especially as it continues to drift to the left. One of the questions surrounding his candidacy is how he would approach a vote on controversial legislation like the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All.” 

He said in that context, communicating with voters is key. 

“If I’m on the opposite side of my constituents on a particular issue, then it’s going to be my job to make my case to the people who elected me, and then, they’ll have to decide whether or not I am reelected,” Ahlers said. “I am your average South Dakotan, when you think of where I come from, what I believe in. Ultimately, you’re elected to represent the people.”

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