Meet the Dell Rapids businessman looking to unseat Rounds in the U.S. Senate
Joe Sneve - Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Sept. 21, 2020
Dan Ahlers hopes his reputation as a political moderate and a campaign message focused on compromise will convince South Dakotans to elect for their first Democratic senator in years. Ahlers, a 46-year-old businessman and former state lawmaker, wants to unseat South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds in the November election. He's looking to join the Senate not to further specific party interests, he said, but instead he wants to vote for what's right for South Dakotans. "I don’t know that any one party has all the answers," Ahlers told the Argus Leader. "Just like my small businesses, if you’re not adaptable and you can't make changes and find compromise, you're going to fail. I’m always looking for the logical solution or the thing that works for everyone."
Graduating from Augustana University in 1997, Ahlers opened his first business, a video rental store in Dell Rapids. He grew the operation to include three standalone stores and dozens of partnerships with gas stations and grocery stores. In 2006, Ahlers leaned on his degree in government and international relations to take his first step into the world of politics, running his first campaign before being elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives at age 32. He went on to serve three non-continuous terms in the Legislature between 2007 and 2018. Ahlers has since retired from the movie-rental business, closing the last of his businesses in 2019. But he still owns several rental properties in and around the Dell Rapids area, including multiple historic buildings. He's also president of his hometown's chamber of commerce. Prior to his run for U.S. Senate, Ahlers had also been working as a substitute teacher in the Dell Rapids School District. "That's been great because it really gave me an inside look at the issues facing the education system," Ahlers said. Pam Cole, the South Dakota Democratic Party executive director, served in the state Senate with Ahlers. She said he brought a mix of business know-how that earned him a spot on the Appropriations Committee, and a natural desire to work with whoever regardless of party. If elected office wasn't dependent on being a Democrat or Republican, Cole said Ahlers probably wouldn't be in a party. Recently, she watched as Ahlers visited with homeless people in Rapid City, something that's not unusual for Ahlers. "He is a deeply caring person," Cole said. "He loves to hear people's stories. If people need help, he acts on that." Ahlers and those who know him are quick to point out that the he doesn't tout some of the platforms that have gained traction among Democrats in recent months, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal or Sen. Bernie Sanders "health-care-for-all" message. But he does champion a better healthcare system, higher teacher pay and environmental sustainability. "Those aren’t partisan issues," Ahlers said. "Those are people issues." Ahlers' attempt to keep Rounds from a second term in the U.S. Senate his first political battle with the former governor. Ahlers was seated for the first time as a legislator at the same time Rounds began his second term as South Dakota's top executive. Bills carried by Ahlers and passed by the Legislature that would have enshrined education and policy safeguards in what's called the Deaf Child's Bill of Rights were vetoed by Rounds. Rounds said at the time that the bills would have complicated responsibility guidelines. Ahlers touts his experience in the Legislature on the appropriation committee, which sets the state's annual budget, as proof he's able to work with Republicans. Serving during the aftermath of the 2009 recession also has him prepared to serve on the national scene while federal Legislators deal with the economical ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. But Republican Party leaders in the state don't see Ahlers as much of a threat. Dan Lederman, executive director of the South Dakota GOP, said Ahlers is weak on experience and name recognition outside of the Sioux Falls area. And while Ahlers might be trying to distance himself from what South Dakotans don't like about the Democratic Party, there's a reason he's a Democrat, he said. "Basically, no one is looking to elevate one of the last video store owners in the state to U.S. Senate," he said. "When you couple that with the fact that Dan Ahlers is a gun grabber ... it's easy to see why his campaign is a non-starter." As a lawmaker, Ahlers voted against bills that would have allowed concealed firearms to be carried on university campuses and opposes allowing anyone eligible to own a firearm to conceal while carrying without a special permit. He's running to represent the best interests of South Dakotans because too often, he said, his opponent and others in Congress haven't, instead being beholden to President Donald Trump and the national Republican Party, Ahlers said. "They're afraid to speak out against the president even when he’s wrong. But our elected officials don’t work for the president and they don’t work for a party," he said. "They work for the people that elected them."