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Year’s Quirkiest Comeback Bid Could Complicate GOP’s Senate Takeover Plan

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Hill denizens of a certain age well remember the unpredictable Larry Pressler. He could be earning another entry as the answer to a political trivia question soon enough.  

Pressler spent 18 years in the Senate representing South Dakota as a Republican before he was defeated in 1996 by just 8,600 votes. Now that the Democrat who sent him packing, Tim Johnson, is retiring after his own three terms, Pressler has decided he’s ready to try yet another comeback — as an independent.  

The nascent campaign is easy to dismiss as an entirely quixotic ego play by a quirky 71-year-old career politician with a story already marked by several halfhearted runs toward the unattainable. That would be a bid for president when he was a 37-year-old Senate freshman, though he pulled out before the first primary. And a pitch to be mayor of Washington, D.C., two years after leaving Congress, but he never filed the paperwork. He ran for his state’s sole House seat four years after that, but more or less gave up and got crushed in the GOP primary by the incumbent governor.  

This time, though, Pressler is pursuing his presumably last hurrah seriously enough that he’s already made a TV ad that aired during the Academy Awards. In the sparsely populated and relatively inexpensive state, he won’t have to raise much to reintroduce himself to the electorate. (My colleague Kyle Trygstad dug up Pressler’s year-end Federal Election Commission report that showed he brought in just under $30,000, including a $25,000 personal loan.)  

His message — that Capitol Hill needs more mavericks like him and that he’d remain unbeholden by staying just one term — will resonate at least somewhat in a year of anti-incumbent fervor and disdain for partisan entrenchment.  

Since World War II, three defeated senators have won their old jobs back. But each did so within four years of losing, and the last such return engagement began a quarter-century ago, with Washington Republican Slade Gorton.  

Eight months from Election Day, Pressler remains the longest of long shots. (The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rate this race Favored Republican .) But if he becomes even a modestly credible third player in the race, he would at least make life more complicated for his longtime colleagues in the Republican Party, who have been counting on a victory by former Gov. Mike Rounds to be the easiest of the six pickups they require to take the Senate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has essentially turned its back on Rick Weiland, a top Tom Daschle aide when he was Senate leader, viewing him as way too liberal to run credibly in a state President Barack Obama lost by 18 points in 2012.  

It’s a bit early to predict whether Rounds or Weiland would suffer more from a sustained effort by Pressler, who for the past several years has had a peripatetic series of positions practicing law, teaching and serving on boards.  

And the former senator looks to try to keep it that way, with a “straight talk” platform that defies easy characterization — and guarantees he will get pilloried from both sides.  

Judging by his campaign push so far, Pressler will market himself to conservative Republicans as a budget hawk eager to shrink the size of government, a civil libertarian opposed to much of the government’s surveillance efforts, an isolationist on foreign policy, tough on crime, supportive of school vouchers and an opponent of both the 2010 health care law and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.  

At the same time, he will sell himself to liberal Democrats as a supporter of abortion rights, gay marriage and expanded gun buyer background checks — and as someone who would raise taxes on the rich, cut defense spending and slow the growth of Social Security in the cause of deficit reduction.  

He endorsed Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but has since become disenchanted with the Democrat’s presidency. He says he’s not decided with which party he’d caucus if elected and might choose to go it alone.  

The lonely course was not unfamiliar to Pressler during his first tour in Congress.  

Although he rose to chair the Commerce Committee during his final two years — and showed some skill at internal politics by besting the powerful Alaska Republican Ted Stevens for the gavel — he was viewed as a senatorial outsider, never able to prove to colleagues that he was more interested in legislating than in leaving a good impression. His allies conceded he was a gadfly preoccupied with parochial pursuits; his critics derided him as a publicity hound, a lightweight, even a flake.  

That characterization was captured by the most infamous anecdote attached to Pressler’s Senate career: The time the senator excused himself from a hearing and sauntered through the nearest door — which turned out to be a closet, not an exit. Pressler stayed there for 15 minutes, betting the event would end and the audience would disperse. Realizing that wasn’t going to happen (not with senators on the dais fascinated to witness how their colleague might recover), he emerged and then waved through the open door in a fooling-nobody effort to mask his stumble.  

But the Pressler canon also includes an incident that briefly made him something of a national hero. He was the only member who flatly turned down one of the bribes offered by FBI agents during Abscam, the 1979 undercover operation on which the Oscar-nominated movie “American Hustle” was based, and which sent seven of his colleagues to prison .  

“It would not be proper for me to promise to do anything in return for a campaign contribution,” Pressler tells the agents on the now famed hidden-camera tape that he excerpted in his 30-second campaign spot . The ad ends with him declaring: “This is the type of honest leadership I would bring to Washington, D.C.”  

Taking his iconoclastic quest from there will be a stretch. But if he sticks with it, he could make one of the year’s more straightforward Senate contests into something pretty entertaining.

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