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Post-election autopsy: Can South Dakota Democrats bring the party back?

After a nearly 30 point loss in what many in the party had hoped would be a tight gubernatorial contest, Democrats in South Dakota are left taking stock of how to reverse a decades-long negative trend of party registration and influence.

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Jamie Smith speaks at an October appearance in the Corn Palace. Smith ended up losing his bid to unseat Gov. Kristi Noem 62% - 35%, though he says several people told him the campaign inspired those who "felt like they've never been included."
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In the wake of an election that saw wide margins in losses at the state level and stagnation in the legislature, the South Dakota Democratic Party has a bit of soul-searching to do.

“We have to get better, there's no doubt about it. But we also need to have a serious talk about what's important in the state of South Dakota,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith said. “I believe that truth matters, and I believe that civility matters. I believe that eventually, those things will come.”

The slow decline of the influence of the party has been 30 years in the making. After the 1992 election, Democrats held 20 of the 35 seats in the state Senate and 28 of the 70 seats in the state House. They also held two of the three major federal positions, with Tom Daschle in the Senate and Tim Johnson in the House.

Today, Democrats hold zero statewide seats and 11 combined seats in the state House and Senate.

However, the election was not entirely a failure: several Democrats pointed to the successful expansion of Medicaid and the promise by Gov. Kristi Noem to erase the tax on groceries as examples of party policy positions at least somewhat supported by more conservative voters.

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“I think the future looks bright for the Democratic Party in South Dakota, because the culture war issues that the South Dakota Republican Party has been running on do not resonate as strongly with young people as they do with older people,” said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who will serve as minority leader this coming session. “At some level what all voters in South Dakota want is they want legislators that are addressing real problems.”

An autopsy of the election results makes some of the problems clear. While the Smith campaign may have liked to see a higher rate of voter turnout, as the 59.4% turnout statewide trailed the 64.9% mark in the 2018 midterms, the 2022 figure was actually above what one would generally expect from South Dakota midterms, outpacing the 2010 and 2014 figures of 52.2% and 54.2%, respectively.

A more worrying trend than turnout would be the proverbial bottom falling out in rural counties. In the 20 least populated counties in the state, Smith ran an average of 17.5 points behind the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, Billie Sutton.

Though Sutton attributed part of the difference to his rodeo background, rural roots and longer, better-funded campaign, he also feared that a “nationalizing” of elections was making it harder for South Dakota Democrats to run local races focused on local issues.

“Pretty much every Democrat that runs in South Dakota runs as a moderate, but they all get labeled as an extremist,” Sutton said. “I talked to my dad the other day, and he listens to Christian radio sometimes, and the things that they're saying about Democrats on Christian radio are disturbing. And so it's not just your national sources anymore, since you can get your media from all sorts of different places. And if you're listening to a lot of extreme sources, I can see how you would start to believe some of that stuff.”

Historical precedent reveals blueprint for growth

In terms of ebbs and flows of power, the South Dakota Democratic Party has been here before.

“George McGovern got in his car in 1953, when there were two Democrats in the 105-seat South Dakota legislature, and started working on building up the campaign skills of individuals in various legislative districts,” said Michael Card, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Dakota. “He would recruit them to run for the legislature, but also to run for city council, county commission, and school boards where they gained some expertise so that they could have a legislative platform.”

The grassroots recruiting and support of candidates up and down the ballot is a cornerstone of any party’s development; it’s the driving force behind both the McGovern strategy and Tom Daschle’s famous leadership development retreats. Kahden Mooney, who ran a losing campaign in Watertown this year, said Democrats need to get back to those basics.

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“There's no reason that we should be leaving these races uncontested. We need to focus on our bench and make sure that we've got good quality candidates with name recognition in their communities,” said Mooney, the youngest legislative candidate this cycle at 21 years old. “That way, when the time does come, then we're ready to put up a fight.”

Randy Seiler, nearing the end of his first term as chair of the state party, took a more positive tone, saying the party is on “solid footing” with respect to its financial condition — the party was in the red when he took over in 2019 — and investment in full-time staff. With those fundamentals in place, Seiler said the stage is set for a steady rebuild.

“You don't turn from a historically red state to a purple or even blue state overnight,” Seiler said. “But there is hope on the horizon.”

Can the party un-nationalize local races?

Despite running an “issues-based, kitchen table” campaign that heavily featured visits to local businesses and roundtables with voters in Watertown, Mooney saw firsthand how national issues have entered into local elections.

“The national Democratic Party was definitely not a helpful topic for me,” Mooney said. “There were several conversations that I had with people throughout town where they said that they don't like the way that the country is going. They don't like student loan reform. They don't like how the country got shut down.”

These national issues also may have played a role in the flipping of District 18, with the defeat of Ryan Cwach by Julie Auch. Auch credited her win to a national and state Democratic party out of touch with the needs of South Dakotans.

“We are a conservative state and we don't like the wokeism attitudes,” Auch said. “We are not interested in the Green New Deal. We understand that you have to have electricity and fuel to farm. We're an agricultural state.”

For Sutton, messaging like that is part of the problem.

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“That’s the thing that's frustrating is that is completely a national issue,” Sutton said. “So if you care about that, then go vote for your U.S. House and Senate races based on that. That should not be an indictment on Ryan Cwach, because he’s not going to vote on the Green New Deal. He is going to focus on healthcare and education.”

However, one blueprint may be Democrat Oren Lesmeister, who pulled off a win in rural District 28A by a slight margin.

“I didn't separate myself totally from the national Democrats, but I don't fully align with their platform either,” Lesmeister said. “And that's just a rural way of life. So when I talk to a lot of my constituents out here in the district, our views align. Even though we're Democrat or Republican, we still have the same thoughts.”

A rancher with a bloodline spanning generations in the district, Lesmeister is an example of how developing strong candidates that fit each district may be able to overcome the numerical advantages currently owned by Republicans in most counties.

Sutton supported that point, saying he didn’t run with any guidance from a state party, instead focusing on making the lives of his friends and neighbors better. He hopes that, even in campaigns that fail, those sorts of seeds can be planted around the state.

“I think that you have to give people hope that things are gonna improve,” Sutton said. “I thought Jamie gave a lot of people hope that maybe we'd have some balance in South Dakota. As you continue to see good candidates on the ballot, even if they lose, it's still giving people hope that somebody's fighting for them and I think you'll see change over time.”

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Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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