OPINION — Dan Ahlers is very familiar with being an underdog.
“I’m a small business owner,” he told me at a Sioux Falls coffee shop this fall. “I’ve been competing with big corporations all my life. You just have to be smarter.”
Ahlers is facing a massive corporation now, the South Dakota Republican Party. He is running against Sen. Mike Rounds, as the former two-term governor seeks his second term in the Senate.
Polls show Rounds with a comfortable lead and national media outlets such as FiveThirtyEight and other election experts say South Dakota is safely Republican. One listed Rounds as having a 99% chance of victory.
Ahlers rejects that. He opened a video store in Dell Rapids after graduating with a degree in government and international relations from Augustana College in 1997 and eventually owned three stores while also renting videos out of other businesses before closing his business in 2019.
He has defeated the favorite before, he said. Ahlers, who owns several rental properties in Dells, also continues to serve as president of the Dell Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
Ahlers said he relied on door-to-door campaigning in previous races, but in this year of a pandemic, that is largely unavailable.
“It’s very difficult to do that now,” he said.
Still, he wants to hear from voters.
“I want to know what people are concerned about,” Ahlers said. “I want to know what is not working for them.”
He was disappointed when Rounds canceled a scheduled debate at the State Fair, citing his wife’s cancer surgery. Rounds also bowed out of a march-up before the Sioux Falls Downtown Rotary, but Ahlers went ahead and took part in it by himself.
KELO-TV, which has hosted candidate debates in the past, is instead asking its viewers to submit questions for the candidates and the station will try to obtain answers. Ahlers is being denied access to large audiences, which often happens to challengers.
“We are elected by the people,” he told me. “We represent the people. We need to be accessible to them.”
He is being outspent as well.
Open Secrets, which tracks campaign spending, reported Rounds had raised $4.5 million, spent $2.7 million and had $1.9 million cash on hand as of Oct. 14.
Ahlers, who filed his report on Sept. 30, had raised $216,521, spent $137,047 and had $79,474 on hand.
The number of registered voters in each party also is daunting. According to the South Dakota Secretary of State, as of Oct. 1 there were 565,313 registered voters in the state.
Nearly half, 271,409, are Republicans. There are 156,305 Democrats, 134,133 independents, 2,136 Libertarians and 1,330 who belong to another party.
Ahlers is trying to get as many voters registered as possible.
“We want to make sure nobody is left out in the cold, nobody is unable to vote,” he said.
Ahlers, who lives in Dell Rapids, served three terms in the South Dakota Legislature, being elected in a Republican-leaning district.
He was elected to the state House in 2006 to represent District 25 and moved to the state Senate in 2008. Ahlers lost a bid for re-election in 2010, as Republican Tim Rave unseated him, and was defeated in a rematch with Raves in 2012.
He returned to the state House in 2016 but was defeated in 2018 in a close race.
Now, he set his sights higher, aiming for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Democrats once had great success running for the Senate, with George McGovern, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson all serving three terms, as they won nine elections between 1962-2008. All three also served in the U.S. House.
But no Democrat has won a statewide election since 2008. Republican Sen. John Thune was unopposed for a second term in 2010 — an astonishing surrender by the Democrats — and didn’t break a sweat when challenged by Democrat Jay Williams in 2016.
Rounds had a bit of a tougher go of it in 2014 after Johnson decided to retire. Rounds won with just 50.4% of the vote, defeating Democrat Rick Weiland, who received 29.5%, former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler getting 17.1% in an independent bid, and former Republican legislator Gordon Howie claiming 3%, also as an independent.
He sees Rounds as vulnerable. Ahlers wishes others did as well. He said when pollsters and pundits say a Democratic candidate has no chance in the state, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The lack of support from the national Democratic Party also is a sore point with Ahlers. He said his polling numbers show him in the 40s and moving up.
“We are certainly within striking distance,” he said.
Ahlers said he disagrees that ultra-conservative voters dominate state politics. Most South Dakotans are more moderate and are willing to listen to both sides of the argument.
People on the far right are “a loud minority,” he said.
Ahlers said he is a moderate Democrat, not a “big tax-and-spend” liberal who can appeal to Republicans. He did so in his legislative races, he said.
Ahlers said he also proved his ability to work across the aisle when he was in Pierre. Too many people want to point fingers and score political points, he said, while he was trying to get things done.
“And I did it, rather effectively,” Ahlers said.
When he was first elected to the Legislature, he met Rounds, who was governor.
He is running on a platform of working to provide good jobs with fair wages, a strong economy, quality education — he has worked as a substitute teacher, which he said provided valuable insights on schools — and affordable health care.
“These are not party issues,” Ahlers said. “They are people issues.”
If he was in Washington, he would push for a second stimulus package. The Republican-controlled Senate and the House, controlled by Democrats, have been unable to strike a deal.
“You have to be able to meet somewhere in the middle,” Ahlers said. “And that’s what is missing.”
When I met with him in September, Ahlers was busy, making phone calls and plans before the interview began. He greeted a man who spotted him and then asked what he was up to lately.
Ahlers explained he was running for the U.S. Senate. The man wished him luck.
It’s part of being an underdog in politics, of running against a candidate with two decades of statewide exposure and a massive advantage in money, staff and party support.
Dan Ahlers has faced this challenge before, he said. It’s a fight he knew he was getting into, and one he thinks he can win.
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