Former Sen. Larry Pressler in 2010.

Story highlights

Larry Pressler, a former Republican, is running for the Senate as an independent

The South Dakotan was voted out of office 18 years ago

His readings at a cowboy poetry event underscore key campaign messages

He is up against incumbent Republican Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland

Sioux Falls, South Dakota CNN  — 

A dimly lit sports bar reading “cowboy poetry” is not exactly where you’d expect to find a candidate for U.S. Senate.

But this was a campaign event of Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator now running as an independent 18 years after he was voted out of office.

He joined a meeting of the Badger Clark Poetry Society, of which is he a member, to get his campaign messages across with couplets and free verse.

“Take Care of Your Friends” by the western poet Baxter Black was one of the poems he chose to read, saying it reflects what he is trying to do – bring civility back to a broken Senate.

Among the apropos lines in Black’s poem, read by Pressler:

“A hug or a shake or whatever seems right. It’s a highpoint of giving, I’ll tell you tonight. All worldly riches and tributes of men can’t hold a candle to the worth of a friend.”

Just in case it was a bit too subtle, Pressler hit it home with an explanation.

“In today’s Washington you can hardly have a friend because you’re categorized immediately. I’ve said that I think our leaders should be able to visit together, more civility should be returned to Washington, D.C,” Pressler told the crowd of a couple dozen people.

He also read a poem called “Homecoming Queen,” written by South Dakota poet M.J. McMillan, who was in attendance.

“Homecoming Queen” is about a beautiful young girl whose life didn’t turn out the way she had hoped, becoming an embittered 40-year-old waitress:

“Waitin’ tables and cryin’ the blues. Don’t judge her too harshly till you’ve had the chance to walk a few miles in her shoes”

It was another campaign message – that the former Republican cares about the underdogs – those who need a second chance, or a second look.

It was an off-beat event befitting an unusual candidacy.

Pressler voted for President Barack Obama twice, yet he contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

“I want to work with both sides,” Pressler said in an interview following his poetry reading.

Suddenly what was supposed to be a slam-dunk for Republican candidate Mike Rounds is more competitive, thanks in part to an anemic campaign and a scandal from his time as governor.

Pressler’s presence in the race has made it even more unpredictable, since he is a well-known figure, especially for older voters.

Strategists in both parties believe he pulls votes more from Rounds than the Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland – but both sides are going after him.

“I’m bad to Republicans and Democrats. That’s reflective of what is happening across the board in the United States. You can’t be a friend with anybody else and admit to it,” Pressler told CNN.

He supports Obamacare (with some changes) and opposes the standard GOP promise to eliminate the Department of Education.

On abortion, he insists he does not believe Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, despite what appeared to be contradictory statements on the issue.

It’s no wonder he says he stopped being a Republican because it went too far to the right in this state.

He says he donated $100,000 of his own savings to his campaign, took out another $100,000 loan and raised about the same. He only has one full-time paid staffer, and two part timers and sends out his own press releases.

Before he was defeated, Pressler served three Senate terms – 18 years.

This time around Pressler is vowing to only stay one term so that he is beholden to no outside special interests.

“Today’s United States senators spend about 52% of their time raising money, either for themselves or their colleagues for the next election. I will not have a next election. This is my last campaign, win or lose, and if I were in the Senate it would be a glorious job because I wouldn’t have to raise money,” Pressler told us.

He won’t say which party he will caucus with if he does pull off a win – thanks to advice from Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King.

“He said it’s a very appropriate thing for an independent not to say which side you’re caucusing with. That’s the approach he took, and the reason is then I would be running as just another Republican or Democrat,” Pressler said.

Since Pressler was defeated in 1996, he has spent a lot of time still in Washington – another line of attack from opponents, especially Republicans.

But he makes no apologies for that, but also insists he spends “half to three quarters” of his time in South Dakota.

He is quite realistic about his chances for reelection, saying “it’s going to be tough.”

But, he insists, it’s about the “journey” rather than the destination.