Larry Pressler, center, wants to come back to the Senate.

Will Larry Pressler Be the Democrats' Hero?

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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In this age of public disgust with politicians, it's not surprising that Larry Pressler is within striking distance of winning the open Senate seat in South Dakota by riding a campaign to clean up Washington.

We have proof he means it. Pressler, a former three-term Republican senator now running as an independent, was one of eight federal elected officials who refused to take a bribe in the infamous Abscam case of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which recently re-entered public consciousness with the hit movie "American Hustle."

The movie vividly re-creates the scandal involving a con man who, working a sting operation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, posed as an Arab sheikh and gathered public officials in a Georgetown house, on a yacht in Florida, and in various hotel rooms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to offer them bags of cash in exchange for clearing legal hurdles to open a fictitious casino in Atlantic City.

Six U.S. representatives and a senator were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. Pressler, however, said no and reported the shady offer to the feds. This display of probity so impressed Walter Cronkite that the anchorman called Pressler a "hero" on "CBS Evening News." The senator replied: “What have we come to if turning down a bribe is heroic?”

Good question. Since the days of Abscam, the trickle of money to politicians has turned into a flood, thanks to the gradual undoing of post-Watergate campaign-finance laws. Nowadays, offering $50,000 for a favor wouldn't even get a sheikh's foot in the door.

That story is worth remembering as an unlikely Battle in the Badlands heads to a conclusion in a little less than three weeks. The state's former Republican governor, Mike Rounds, was supposed to walk away with the race against Democrat Rick Weiland, long ignored as a losing cause by his party. Rounds coasted along, raising little money, making unforced errors and not much worrying about it. After all, he was running ahead in a four-way race (another independent candidate, Gordon Howie, will also be on the ballot) in a state that went for Mitt Romney big time in 2012.

Enter the quixotic Mayday PAC, the political action committee run by Laurence Lessig, the anti-political-money Harvard professor. The PAC put $1 million into an ad campaign against Rounds that moved the needle sharply. Suddenly, Pressler was within three points of Rounds. The former governor roused himself, sounding the alarm that control of the Senate majority may be at stake. Republicans had no choice but to send in the cavalry to rescue Rounds, diverting money from other races.

In a matter of weeks, $3 million in marked bills had found its way to Rounds' campaign.

Democrats now have to decide whether their best play is to buoy their flawed candidate by attacking Pressler (hoping not to drive his supporters to Rounds) or take on Rounds and go easy on Pressler, hoping the enigmatic independent who raised money for Romney but voted for Barack Obama will caucus with Democrats if he makes it to the Senate.

Two Democratic super-PACs have swooped in to support Weiland. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’d ignored the candidate's earlier pleas for help, sent Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee money this week. If the DSCC's ad campaign is based purely on demolishing Rounds as opposed to boosting Weiland, then you can safely bet that national Democrats are trying to put Pressler over the top.

At one time, Pressler was a big fundraiser himself, but no more. He is only raising $100,000 and borrowing another $100,000 for his campaign, a tiny fraction of what Rounds and Weiland will end up with.

He has one paid employee, and his wife, Harriet, drives him to campaign events. In the Senate, Pressler was considered an earnest, image-conscious, but not distinguished lawmaker. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar (he was so proud of that he practically put "R-Oxford" after his name), he did good work but was happiest when a camera was around to record it.

These days, he's far more liberal than his Republican incarnation. He wants to reduce the deficit but has “tabled” his previous support for raising the retirement age to maintain the solvency of Social Security. Instead, he now proposes to increase the cost-of-living adjustment. He supports stronger background checks for gun sales, is opposed to “military adventurism,” wants to build a museum honoring American Indians, and supports marriage equality.

Like a few other candidates this cycle, he has been forced to try to extinguish a brush fire caused by the disclosure that he doesn’t actually live in the state where he's running. He has a family farm and an apartment in South Dakota, but he and his wife work in Manhattan and Washington, and as a Fulbright teaching fellow, he spends months each year as a visiting professor at universities around the world.

Although Pressler is far to the left of the South Dakota legislature, which wants to impeach Obama, he has endeared himself to the state's residents with his poetry readings and avuncular way. One famous story still circulates about the then-senator walking out of a congressional hearing through the nearest door -- into a closet. After about 15 minutes, according to Roll Call, he realized the event wasn’t ending anytime soon and emerged, backing out, waving to an unseen crowd as if leaving a campaign rally.

He recently brushed off the story, saying “there are a lot of doors on Capitol Hill.”

One may soon have Pressler's name on it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net