PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The five South Dakotans vying for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate found common ground on most policy issues — including their opposition to the president's federal health care law — but also took a few personal shots at each other in their first debate in Pierre on Saturday.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds, state Sen. Larry Rhoden, state Rep. Stace Nelson, attorney and Army Reserves Maj. Jason Ravnsborg, and physician Annette Bosworth all made their case for becoming the party's nominee at the annual convention of state newspaper editors.
The June 3 primary winner will join Democrat Rick Weiland and independent Larry Pressler on the Nov. 4 ballot to fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.
Rounds is considered the front-runner in the race, which provides a prime opportunity for the GOP. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate.
Nelson, of Fulton, accused Rounds of not being a true fiscal conservative during his eight years as governor and of being beholden to the influence of out-of-state campaign money.
Rounds, of Fort Pierre, said he has a lot of grass-roots support and must defend himself against attacks from outside groups.
"Stace, you're the only guy that I know that has gotten kicked out of a Republican caucus for misbehavior," Rounds told Nelson in a reference to the state legislature's daily planning session.
"I got thrown out of caucus by moderates," Nelson later countered.
Personal criticisms aside, the five candidates generally agreed that the federal government should shrink and that the country needs more domestic energy sources.
They all also agreed that President Barack Obama's federal health care law should be repealed or limited.
Rhoden, of Union Center, said South Dakota's next U.S. senator needs to be someone with the ability to oppose the president and his agenda. He vowed to "make next two years the most miserable of (Obama's) career."
Bosworth, of Sioux Falls, said that as a doctor who helps lower-income people, she believes the Affordable Care Act has harmed patient care and increased costs.
"This law has brought into the room way too many people on how to care for the patient," she said. "It has everything to do with removing the conversation between doctors and patients about the cost."
Part of the debate focused on the EB-5 visa program, which allows people to get residency if they invest at least $500,000 in approved projects.
One of those projects, the bankrupt Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen, is at the center of state and federal investigations that have focused on Richard Benda, the former commissioner of the Governor's Office of Economic Development under Rounds' administration.
Benda was found dead Oct. 22 with a fatal shotgun wound. His death was ruled a suicide.
A state audit found that just before Benda left the economic development office, he added an extra $550,000 to a grant agreement to help the struggling Northern Beef plant. Benda also hand-delivered a $1 million check to the Aberdeen plant, and $550,000 of that was improperly diverted to pay loan monitoring fees for the EB-5 program, according to a report by Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Rounds did not refer to the investigations but defended the state's use of the EB-5 program, saying it helped him create 28,000 jobs as governor. No taxpayer money was lost, he said.
"We have more dairies; we have a turkey processing plant and a power plant because of it," he said. "It provides an opportunity to get a green card. They have to apply for citizenship separately."
Nelson and Ravnsborg, of Yankton, both said they support changing or eliminating the EB-5 visa program.
Nelson argued that taxpayer money was involved and said he brought a bill to end the state's use of the program.
"To call it successful, that takes the wind out of me," he said. "I would happily end that crony capitalism program."
In his closing comments, Ravnsborg said Democrats are waiting to exploit the issue.
"We could lose this seat very easily," he said. "We need more leadership and not a lot of rhetoric."
The South Dakota Newspaper Association hosted Saturday's forum as part of its annual convention. Watertown Public Opinion publisher Mark Roby moderated. Questions came from three newspaper journalists: Jonathan Ellis of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, Katie Zerr of the Mobridge Tribune and Lance Nixon of the Capital Journal in Pierre.
Argus Leader video of debate: http://argusne.ws/1gl4abq