PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — State Sen. Larry Rhoden, a longtime leader in the South Dakota Legislature, said Tuesday he will challenge former Gov. Mike Rounds for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate next year.
Rhoden has long been mentioned as a possible candidate by some Republicans who believe Rounds is not conservative enough on tax and spending issues. But Rounds, considered the front-runner, holds a substantial edge in name recognition in the race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who is not seeking re-election after three terms.
Rhoden, 54, a rancher and custom welder from Union Center in sparsely populated western South Dakota, said he will formally announce his candidacy Wednesday in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. He said he knows he will have to campaign heavily in more populous eastern South Dakota, where he is not well known.
Rhoden has been a state legislator since 2001, serving as majority leader in the House for four years before being elected in 2008 to the Senate, where he is majority whip. He said that experience demonstrates he has the backbone to change the way things are done.
"Given the situation we're in at the national level with the national debt and the federal government basically out of control, it's going to take some strong people with strong will and a strong backbone to do something that's going to make a meaningful difference," Rhoden told The Associated Press. "I think my experience in the Legislature and leadership positions have given me that kind of character so I can do something."
Rhoden said people have been urging him for more than a year to run for the U.S. Senate. Asked how he would differ from Rounds, Rhoden said he will let Rounds "define what he would do and how he would do it."
Rounds said he's been friends with Rhoden for years and the two worked together while Rounds was governor and Rhoden was a House member.
"He was one of my best supporters in the Legislature. I could always count on him to work with me on budgets and projects," Rounds said.
Asked about criticism of his record on budget issues, Rounds said the Legislature passed budgets that spent more than he had recommended five of his eight years as governor.
As a state lawmaker, Rhoden has been considered a conservative on spending and other issues, including gun rights.
Rhoden said the federal government has failed to control spending and deal with other issues, such as immigration and border control.
"Somehow we need to change that way of thinking and get back to the principles our founding fathers believed in, in limited government and personal responsibility," Rhoden said. "It sounds pretty lofty, but maybe I'm just naive enough to believe we can do that."
He acknowledged that Rounds is the front-runner, but said he believes he can compete with the former governor in the primary.
Former South Dakota State University political science professor Bob Burns said it has been evident for some time that some conservative candidate would emerge to challenge Rounds in the primary, largely because of discontent with Rounds' budget policies and his refusal to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Rounds is a formidable candidate because he was a popular governor from 2003 to 2010, Burns said.
"Governor Rounds has near 100 percent name recognition. He left the governor's post with high approval ratings and continues to have the Mr. Nice Guy image," Burns said.
Rhoden's challenge will force Rounds to spend money in a primary when he would rather save for the general election, Burns said, adding that Rounds is unlikely to adopt more conservative positions just to win a primary.
Some Republicans had hoped Rep. Kristi Noem would run for U.S. Senate, but last month she announced she will seek re-election to the state House.
The only Democratic candidate who has announced he's seeking the nomination for the U.S. Senate is Rick Weiland, an ex-staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
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