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At 71, Larry Pressler will run for his old S.D. Senate seat, as an independent

Always a maverick, now an elderly one, will he have an impact?

The politics, and especially the U.S. Senate race politics, of next-door South Dakota are always full of surprises.

The latest (although it’s not out of the blue, since he’s been heading in this direction for a while) is that former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler has announced he will for the U.S. Senate seat, now occupied by the retiring Democrat Tim Johnson. Pressler is 71 and served three terms in the Senate, as a Republican, before losing his seat to Johnson in 1996 (that’s three terms ago).

Pressler made all of his previous races (two for the U.S. House, four for the Senate and briefly in 1980 for president) as a Republican, but this time he’ll run as an independent.

Pressler was a Vietnam vet and became the first veteran of that war elected to Congress (in 1974, yes, that’s 40 years ago). He was a moderate/maverick Republican and distinguished himself during the Abscam scandal as the only member of Congress who flatly rejected the fake bribes that were being offered by undercover FBI agents.

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When I say that Senate politics in South Dakota are full of surprises I basically mean that it’s a bright red state in presidential politics (that Mitt Romney carried 58-40 percent and which has given its electoral vote to the Republican nominee in 18 of the last 19 elections dating back to Wendell Wilkie in 1940). But Democrats have won a majority of the Senate races (10 out of 17) since 1960. And the Dems South Dakotans elected have been as liberal as George McGovern and as solid blue as Tom Daschle.

(Come to think about it, one could make a similar case — in reverse — about Minnesota, which has been the single most reliably blue state in presidential elections since 1960 –13 out of 14 elections — but during the same period Repubs have won seven gubernatorial elections compared to five for Dems and one for Jesse Ventura).

Heading into 2014, with the popular but ailing Johnson retiring, Repubs see South Dakota as a pickup opportunity. With most other big-name Democrats taking themselves out of the running, the Dem nomination seems open for former Dashcle staffer Rick Weiland, who has run for Congress previously (but unsuccessfully). The Repubs have a big field with five declared candidates, but former Gov. Mike Rounds is the likely favorite.

If Pressler stays in the race, he’ll complicate the numbers for the major party candidates. If he were to win, he would be the second true independent in the Senate, along with Angus King of Maine. (I’m not counting Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is a Socialist.) Based on the comments he made in recent days, summarized by the Siooux Falls Argus Leader, he would be a raging moderate. As captured in this excerpt from the Argus Leader’s Pressler-announces story:

“I want to … end the poisonous bipartisan deadlock in Washington,” Pressler said this week.

Long a moderate Republican, Pressler broke with his own party in the past several years. He endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. Today, he says he’s a “deficit hawk” who wants to balance the budget in part by cutting back on foreign military spending. That includes canceling unneeded weapons projects and closing some overseas bases.

“Congress is building all kinds of weapons that the Pentagon says we don’t need anymore,” Pressler said.

He considers himself “moderately conservative.” Pressler said he’d have voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but he thinks that it can’t just be repealed now that it’s in place.