The interesting times of South Dakota Republicans

The battle on Saturday afternoon for chairmanship of the South Dakota Republican Party built from more than a decade of frustration with many things that weren’t the party’s responsibility.

People had grown tired of South Dakota National Guard deployments to the Middle East wars. The national economic crash in 2008 forced sharp rollbacks in the South Dakota Retirement System, culminating in a retired judge suing and losing. The SDRS changes have gradually become more restrictive with the system splitting into two starting later this year and another round of limitations passed into law this month to wring out every million dollars of unfair excess possible.

The 2010 campaign for governor saw a five-way Republican primary that Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard won with just over 50 percent. That meant one of every two Republicans who voted had marked their ballots instead for one of the four others. The 2010 elections also saw state Rep. Kristi Noem win a three-way Republican primary for U.S. House and get the nomination with a plurality. She then defeated the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who had looked seemingly unbeatable after two victories in 2004 and again in 2006 and 2008.

This is now the seventh year of Gov. Daugaard’s administration and there naturally comes fatigue. He began his time as South Dakota’s chief executive with 10 percent budget cuts throughout much of state government in 2011 because of the troubles in the economy and to deal with overspending. The high salaries granted to cabinet secretaries and division directors during the Rounds administration had to be pared, for example, and Daugaard cut his salary to be the example.

In 2014 Daugaard faced a primary in his re-election run. Former legislator Lora Hubbel of Sioux Falls drew 14,196 votes to Daugaard’s 60,017. Meanwhile there was a five-way Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Former Gov. Mike Rounds won with 41,377 votes, ahead of state Sen. Larry Rhoden of Union Center at 13,593; state Rep. Stace Nelson of Fulton with 13,179; Jason Ravnsborg of Yankton 4,283; and Annette Bosworth 2,066. Bosworth, a medical doctor from Sioux Falls, was later found guilty of committing perjury on her nomination petition. Rounds received 55 percent of the vote, but that meant more than two out of five Republicans preferred someone other than the recent governor.

Throughout all of this South Dakota’s economy puttered along. State sales tax is the No. 1 source of revenue for state government’s general fund and it didn’t keep pace any longer. A desire to get teacher pay out of last place nationally and to finally compensate school districts for the cuts they took in state funding from 2011 led to Daugaard’s proposal to raise the sales tax rate to 4.5 percent from 4 percent. He won that battle in the 2016 legislative session over hard opposition from many of the most conservative Republican lawmakers. He needed a reconsideration vote to get the tax increase through the House of Representatives.

Daugaard further stirred unrest among Republican legislators and Bible-based conservatives last year when he vetoed restrictions intended to prohibit transgender students from mixing with the opposite biological gender in school bathrooms and locker rooms. The June primaries saw a variety of Republican battles for legislative seats, with Daugaard-backed candidates achieving mixed results. That he was involved at all upset some Republicans.

Then the crude sexist remarks by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump led to another blow-up in October when Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune, a Republican, used Twitter to call for Trump to end his candidacy.

Daugaard sent a clear signal this year he would veto anti-transgender legislation again, and the one bill was withdrawn. He leaped into another battle this past week, saying he would veto legislation that attempts to allow specially certified gun owners including law enforcement officers who don’t work for Capitol security to bring concealed pistols into the Capitol. He emphasized his opposition by using his weekly column and radio commentary to focus on gun legislation.

The question no one seemed to be asking in the run-up to Saturday’s Republican central committee meeting is why some in the party were coalescing behind a former legislator who had unexpectedly quit his post at the end of the 2015 session. The resignation of then-Sen. Dan Lederman of Dakota Dunes was one-half of a one-two punch to the Senate’s Republican leadership. While Lederman departed three months into his new two-year term for what he described as family reasons, Senate Republican leader Tim Rave of Baltic stepped down to accept a management promotion in one of South Dakota’s major healthcare systems. Both resignations came as a surprise.

Their departures threw the Senate into a deep split for 2016 that further shaped 2017’s climate. For the 2016 session Senate Republicans chose Sen. Corey Brown of Gettysburg to move from Senate president pro tem to majority leader in an uncontested move. There were elections within the Republican caucus for the president pro tem vacancy and assistant leader, which Sen. Gary Cammack of Union Center won over Sen. Ried Holien of Watertown and Sen. Jim White of Huron won over Sen. Brock Greenfield of Clark.

Holien ultimately chose against seeking re-election to the Senate; his seat was won in a June primary by Neal Tapio of Watertown over Rep. Roger Solum of Watertown, who hadn’t planned to run again and was term-limited in the House. Holien instead sought election to a purely political position and was chosen South Dakota Republican national committeeman. Holien and the Republican national committeewoman, Sandye Kading of Rapid City, backed Lederman for chairman in Saturday’s contest.

Daugaard throughout these seven years has faced a constant demand to replace legislators who have resigned or died. He has now made 14 such appointments. His choice of Bill Shorma from Dakota Dunes to replace Lederman in 2015 caused controversy. A Republican House member, Jim Bolin of Canton, was term-limited and wanted to continue serving in the Legislature. Daugaard picked Shorma instead of Bolin. That didn’t stop Bolin from running for the Senate in 2016 and winning.

Shorma, rather than face Bolin in a primary, ran for a House seat instead and lost in a primary. Last month Daugaard named Shorma to the South Dakota Lottery Commission to fill a seat that had been left open for all of 2016.

Daugaard also backed term-limited Rep. Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City in a Republican primary challenge to Sen. Phil Jensen of Rapid City last June. Jensen won again. Unsurprisingly his household worked in recent weeks for Lederman’s election as party chairman.

Insurrection isn’t new for many of the people who comprise the South Dakota Republican central committee. In 2014 the core leadership approved a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Barack Obama. Their strong feelings against Obama have been manifested many times in the votes and statements by the congressional delegation against Obama’s administration including the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare – and in the backlash against Daugaard and Thune for their brief break from Trump via Twitter.

The party has gone through several phases regarding the chairmanship in the past decade. While a state senator Bob Gray of Pierre served as chairman for the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Next came Rave for the 2012 cycle while also serving as a legislator. The chairman for the 2014 cycle was advertising and marketing expert Craig Lawrence of Sioux Falls. The 2016 cycle saw Pam Roberts of Pierre, a long-time Janklow, Mickelson, Rounds and Daugaard aide and Cabinet member, chosen to succeed Lawrence. She is the daughter-in-law of Clint Roberts, a former legislator, congressman and two-time candidate for governor.

Daugaard issued a letter recently bearing the names of Thune, Rounds, Noem and himself supporting Roberts’ re-election.

The 2016 elections created a more conservative Republican caucus in the state Senate. Brown was term-limited and didn’t return for 2017. Cammack lost to Greenfield for president pro tem. The new majority leader is Sen. Blake Curd of Sioux Falls, who had run for the U.S. House in the 2010 primary won by Noem.

Stirring more unrest in recent months was voters’ approval in November of Initiated Measure 22 that placed tight restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators and their immediate families and would have created a taxpayer-funded system of campaign financing for legislative and statewide candidates. After their leadership first won a temporary hold from Circuit Judge Mark Barnett – who lost to Rounds for governor in the 2002 Republican primary for governor, then immediately supported Rounds’ candidacy and later received a judicial appointment from Rounds — the Republican super-majorities in both chambers last month voted to repeal IM 22, a rarely used but legal step, and Daugaard signed the repeal into law.

Now legislators from both chambers and both parties are attempting to pass other measures that keep faith with voters’ intent for reforms expressed in IM 22. But what won’t be approved by legislators is anything close to IM 22’s greatest disruptive force: The restrictions meant to address conflicts of interest. Those would have affected the outside employment of not only legislators but of their families and the families of statewide officeholders. They were at the center of the lawsuit.

Another signal of the party’s split at its most active levels can be found in the list of delegates and alternates to the Republican national convention last summer. There were many names of men and women who backed Lederman this winter, perhaps as many who would still stand with Daugaard and Roberts on Saturday.

That Republican voters want change can be found in the opposite results of two 2016 ballot measures. Republicans focused on defeating proposed constitutional amendment V that would have created nonpartisan elections in South Dakota. V lost with 55.5 percent voting against it; V failed in 62 of 66 counties. IM 22 however, with out-of-state interests providing the campaign money both for it and against it, passed with 51.6 percent voting for it. IM 22 won in some heavily Republican and normally more conservative counties including Custer, Fall River, Lawrence and Pennington counties that made the difference in the victory for IM 22.

You’re also seeing discontent among Republican legislators with the criminal sentencing changes spearheaded by Daugaard in recent years as a budget-control strategy. Basically, to avoid building more prison space, first-time offenders found guilty of the lowest levels of felonies must be sentenced to probation rather than time behind bars. Limits also were placed on the time that juveniles could be placed on probation; those juvenile limits will be expanded this legislative session so judges can give juveniles more time on probation.

Yet through all of this, Republicans kept winning more elections. The Noem victory for U.S. House in 2010 marked a turning point by taking back a key post from the Democrats. The retirement of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in 2014, and the subsequent victory by Rounds, completed the conversion of South Dakota’s congressional delegation from majority Democratic to entirely Republican.

The numbers of seats in the Legislature slowly turned more and more Republican, where they now hold 60 of 70 in the House and 29 of 35 in the Senate. And since 2008, Democratic voter registration plummeted while Republicans steadily kept up and independents greatly gained.

The Lederman-Roberts showdown is a precursor. Republicans face another round of big splits in 2018, with state Attorney General Marty Jackley and Congresswoman Noem already declared unofficially as candidates for the party’s nomination for governor. As he runs, Jackley has been negotiating the difficult straits of the EB-5 prosecution of Joop Bollen and the prosecutions of three people charged in the Gear Up scandal associated with Mid-Central education cooperative at Platte. One of the handicaps Jackley’s faced is the presumptive probation sentences for lower-level felonies. These same scandals undoubtedly helped fuel the IM 22 passage.

Noem’s “I’m all in” statement means there will be an opening for the U.S. House seat, and former Daugaard chief of staff Dusty Johnson – who won re-election to the state Public Utilities Commission in 2010 but didn’t serve a day of his second term because he became chief of staff (he left the post after Daugaard’s re-election in 2014) – has already declared his intention to run for Congress. It would be a surprise if there isn’t a primary for U.S. House, given all that’s transpiring. These are interesting times.

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

One thought on “The interesting times of South Dakota Republicans

  1. Troy Jones


    I can’t decide if that is a good summation of many disparate items banging around in the heads of Republicans or a cogent rambling of all you have banging around in your head. But it is pretty good.

    That said, I think, instead of all you list as being a reason for Dusty having opposition, it is why I think he will end up unopposed- Dusty is one where a lot of people from disparate places can get behind. Those who don’t get behind Dusty will be themselves so disparate they can’t unite behind another candidate.

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