Can South Dakota Democrats bring the party back?

SIOUX FALLS, SD — Following an election that saw wide margins of statewide losses and stagnation in the Legislature, the South Dakota Democratic Party has some soul-searching to do. .

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

The slow decline of the party’s influence has lasted for 30 years. After the 1992 election, Democrats held 20 of 35 state Senate seats and 28 of 70 State House seats. They also held two of the top three federal posts, with Tom Daschle in the Senate and Tim Johnson in the House.

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

However, the election was not entirely a failure: Several Democrats pointed to the successful expansion of Medicaid and Governor Kristi Noem’s pledge to scrap the grocery tax as examples of party policy positions. at least somewhat supported by more conservative voters.

“I think the future looks bright for the Democratic Party of South Dakota, because the culture war issues that the Republican Party of South Dakota is committed to don’t resonate as strongly with young people as they do with elderly,” said Senator Reynold. Nesiba, who will be the minority leader in the next session. “On some level, what all voters in South Dakota want is that they want lawmakers who are addressing the real issues.”

An autopsy of the election results highlights some of the problems. While the Smith campaign might have liked to see a higher turnout, as the statewide turnout of 59.4% lagged the 64.9% mark midterm. of 2018, the 2022 figure was actually higher than one would typically expect from South Dakota’s midterms, topping the 2010 and 2014 figures by 52.2% and 54.2%, respectively.

A more worrisome trend than turnout would be the proverbial low that falls in rural counties. Across the state’s 20 least populous counties, Smith averaged 17.5 points behind 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Billie Sutton.

Although Sutton attributed some of the difference to his rodeo background, rural roots and a longer, better-funded campaign, he also worried that a “nationalization” of the election would make it harder for Democrats in Dakota South to organize local races focused on local issues.

“Nearly every Democrat running in South Dakota is running as a moderate, but they’re all labeled as extremists,” Sutton said. “I spoke to my dad the other day, and he sometimes listens to Christian radio, and the things that they say 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 kinds of different places, and if you listen to a lot of extreme sources, I can see how you would start to believe some of these things.

Historical precedent reveals plan for growth

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

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

Grassroots recruitment and support of candidates at all levels of the ballot is the cornerstone of any party’s development; it is the driving force behind 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.

“There is no reason for us to leave these races uncontested. We have to focus on our bench and make sure we have good quality candidates with name recognition in their communities,” said Mooney, the youngest legislative candidate this cycle at 21. “That way, when the time comes, we’ll be ready to fight.”

Randy Seiler, who was nearing the end of his first term as state party president, struck a more positive tone, saying the party was on “solid footing” when it came to its financial situation – the party was in the red when he took over in 2019 — and investing in full-time staff. With those fundamentals in place, Seiler said the stage was set for a steady rebuild.

“You don’t go 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 denationalize local races?

Although he ran an “issues-based kitchen table” campaign that included extensive visits to local businesses and roundtables with Watertown voters, Mooney saw firsthand how national issues entered the mainstream. local elections.

“The National Democratic Party was definitely not a helpful topic for me,” Mooney said. “There were several conversations I had with people all over the city where they said they didn’t like the way the country was doing. They don’t like student loan reform. They don’t like the way the country has been shut down.

These national issues may also have played a role in the reversal of District 18, with the defeat of Ryan Cwach against Julie Auch. Auch attributed his victory 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 revival attitudes,” Auch said. “We are not interested in the Green New Deal. We understand that you need electricity and fuel to farm. We are an agricultural state.

For Sutton, this type of messaging is part of the problem.

“That’s the frustrating thing is that it’s completely a national issue,” Sutton said. “So if you care about that, then go vote for your United States House and Senate races based on that. This shouldn’t be an indictment of Ryan Cwach because he won’t vote on the Green New Deal. It will focus on health care and education.

However, a role model may be Democrat Oren Lesmeister, who won in Rural District 28A by a narrow margin.

“I haven’t totally split with the National Democrats, but I don’t fully align with their platform either,” Lesmeister said. “And it’s just a rural way of life. So when I talk to a lot of my constituents here in the district, our views align. Even if we are Democrats or Republicans, we still have the same thoughts.

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

Sutton backed up that point, saying he didn’t show up with the advice of a state party, instead focusing on improving the lives of his friends and neighbors. He hopes that even in failed campaigns, these kinds of seeds can be planted across the state.

“I think you have to give people hope that things will get better,” Sutton said. “I thought Jamie gave a lot of people hope that maybe we would have some balance in South Dakota. As you continue to see good candidates on the ballot, even if they lose, it still gives people hope that someone is fighting for them and I think you will see changes over time.

Jason Harvard is a

Report for America

Corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at



[email protected]

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