WATCH LIVE: South Dakota Senate debate


Four candidates in South Dakota's U.S. Senate race will debate live from Vermillion, S.D., at 9 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. MT) on Thursday, Oct. 23. Mike Rounds (R), Rick Weiland (D), Gordon Howie (I), and Larry Pressler (I) participate. Live stream courtesy South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, the four candidates in one of this cycle's most intriguing U.S. Senate races will meet for a live debate at 9 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. MT) tonight.

Mike Rounds (R), Rick Weiland (D), Gordon Howie (I), and Larry Pressler (I) will face off on the campus of the University of South Dakota, each vying to replace retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D). South Dakota Public Broadcasting is hosting the hour-long debate alongside AARP and the S.D. Newspaper Association. Stephanie Rissler, a producer and journalist for SDPB, moderates.

Long thought a lock for the Republican Rounds, a former governor, this race has been thrust into the national spotlight in recent weeks as Weiland and Pressler have gained on him in the polls, raising concerns among the GOP, who need to gain six seats this cycle to win control of the U.S. Senate.

The race even received a "Colbert Bump" last week, when the comedian poked fun at the sudden attention being showered on a state usually neglected during election cycles.

Controversy entered the competition when questions began to arise about Rounds' knowledge of and participation in an alleged scheme to sell immigration visas during his tenure as governor. Following the death of Richard Benda, who directed the program through which the EB-5 visas were administered, investigations revealed that key documents had been destroyed, and that the alleged embezzlement had likely lost the state millions of dollars.

Weiland and Pressler, Rounds' closest competitors, have hammered upon these accusations in recent weeks. Weiland, a former FEMA administrator and CEO of a building safety advocacy group, has made reforming the role of money in politics a centerpiece of his campaign.

Howie, a former state legislator who is running the most traditionally conservative campaign, trails his opponents.

Mike Rounds (R), Rick Weiland (D), Larry Pressler (I), and Gordon Howie (I) will face off on the campus of the University of South Dakota, each vying to replace retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D).

Tonight's debate come on the heels of one more round of accusations being levied on the former Governor. On Wednesday, a Sioux Falls newspaper published an article asserting that, shortly before leaving office, Rounds had granted state funds to a private company Benda was about to begin working for. It is unclear whether Rounds knew of his cabinet member's conflict of interest before signing off on the grant.

In light of these allegations, as well as a spate of outside ad spending pouring into the Mount Rushmore State, the outcome of this race is guaranteed to be a squeaker. Expect passion to run high at tonight's debate, especially as new polls show Pressler, a former Republican congressman and Senator for the state, now running as an independent, making an increasingly strong showing.

Notably, Pressler has recently been joined on the campaign trail by John Good, a retired FBI agent who oversaw a sting operation that offered bribes to several Congressman in 1980. Pressler was the only lawmaker to refuse the offer.

In case alleged corruption and outsider spending do not entirely dominate tonight's debate, the state of the economy is sure to be up for discussion. South Dakota is one of five states considering a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. Healthcare may also be a topic of debate — Pressler recently came out in favor of the Affordable Care Act — as well as the Keystone XL Pipeline.

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