SD Democratic chairwoman points to ‘volatile’ politics, gerrymandering for party’s losses

A person early votes at Central Library in Madison, Wis., Oct. 14, 2016. The U.S. Supreme Court declined on June 18, 2018, to decide two challenges to partisan gerrymandering, citing technical grounds. In a case from Wisconsin, the court said plaintiffs there had not proved they had suffered the sort of direct injury to give them standing to sue. The court sent the case back to the lower courts to allow the plaintiffs to try again. (Lauren Justice/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

PIERRE, S.D. -- Reflecting on South Dakota’s tighter-than-expected gubernatorial race, chairwoman of the South Dakota Democratic Party Ann Tornberg calls Democratic candidate Billie Sutton’s single-digit loss “tremendous.”

“It was only two years ago this month in 2016 that Donald Trump won South Dakota by 30 percentage points, and then two years later Billie Sutton lost by three points,” Tornberg said. “So he was able to knock a zero off of that, or change that percentage by 27 points. That’s a tremendous effort.”

The race drew national attention for its competitiveness in a state as red as South Dakota. Until the final hour, when Republican U.S. Rep. and Governor-elect Kristi Noem clinched a victory by a mere 3 percentage points, the race was in a dead heat.

But in other statewide races, Republicans easily carried the state. The second-closest statewide race was for Attorney General, where Republican candidate Jason Ravnsborg defeated Democrat Randy Seiler by 10 percentage points. From there, Republican candidates wiped the floor with at least a 24 percentage point advantage over Democrats in the six remaining statewide office races.

Further down the ballot, Republicans easily hung onto their stronghold in the legislature. According to the Secretary of State’s unofficial results, Republicans won 30 out of 35 state Senate seats, and 59 out of 70 state House seats. Some close races await potential recounts.

So if a Democrat came so close to winning South Dakota’s top statewide office, why did other Democratic statewide candidates lose by such wide margins? Tornberg pointed to “negative” and “volatile” politics.

“I think the national norms that flow out of Washington, D.C., have turned politics more and more negative,” Tornberg said. “The national media, cable news especially, plays off of that division and that volatile nature.

“I want to believe that we’re tired of it.”

She also said she thinks gerrymandering is partially to blame for Democrats’ losses.

South Dakota’s legislative district lines were most recently redrawn under Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s watch based on the 2010 census.

A 2016 analysis by the Associated Press said that South Dakota Republicans performed disproportionately well in 2016’s elections according to an “efficiency gap formula.”

In South Dakota, as well as Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, the AP said the efficiency gap significantly leaned Republican. Each of these states was under Republican control at the time of their last redistricting.

With Republicans holding a supermajority during South Dakota’s next redistricting process following the 2020 census, Tornberg said she is concerned district lines will be drawn in Republicans’ favor.

But there’s more to the equation than district lines. Even before South Dakotans hit the polls, only 29 percent register as Democrats in the first place, according to November state voter registration data. In comparison, 47 percent identify as Republican, and 23 percent as Independent or unaffiliated.

Jeff Barth, a Democratic Minnehaha County Commissioner and prominent member of party said he thinks this is somewhere where the state party has dropped the ball, saying, “There’s been no attempt to register voters.”

“On election day, you try to turn out Democrats, but then maybe it’s late to try to invent tens of thousands of voters,” he said. “You need to be out there before election day finding voters.”

He continued, “I think that we know areas where Democrats are. We know areas where they’re not all registered and we’re just not making the effort necessary to get them in.”

Democrats didn’t always have such a deficiency in registration numbers. According to registration totals dating back to 2006, Democratic registration hit its peak in July 2009, with over 206,000 registered in the party. That was 38 percent of registered voters at the time, compared to 45 percent registered Republican.

It also wasn’t long ago that Democrats held prominent federal offices in South Dakota.

Democrat Tim Johnson served South Dakota in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before retiring in January 2015. Republican Sen. Mike Rounds has served in Johnson’s vacated seat since. And in the U.S. House, Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin served more than six years until Noem defeated her bid for re-election in 2010.

Though she admits the state party was disappointed by Nov. 6’s results, Tornberg said she doesn’t see the midterms as a total loss. She said the party set a record for recruiting legislative candidates, even in districts that haven’t seen democratic candidates in years. And many candidates, even if they didn’t win, she said came close.

Tornberg also said she saw enthusiasm from campaign volunteers throughout the state. Going forward, she said she plans to build upon this excitement in hopes of gaining ground in 2020.

“We need to be reaching out to these people,” she said. “Their issues will not go away and I don’t think they’ll be addressed by this Republican-controlled legislature or this governor.

“(Democrats are) all disappointed in the results of this election but we have to move forward.”