SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Dan Ahlers stayed in South Dakota after he graduated college because he saw an opportunity. 

Now the former Dell Rapids business owner and state lawmaker says he agreed to take on the role of executive director for the South Dakota Democratic Party for the same reason. 

“This seemed like a really good fit for me,” Ahlers told KELOLAND News. “It comes down to how people see the Democratic Party and that’s where I see opportunity. I know who we are. I know what we stand for.”

Ahlers was officially announced in a news release from the party Monday, where SDDP Chair Jennifer Slaight-Hansen praised Ahlers’ relationship-building skills. 

Ahlers said he believes the values of the Democratic Party in South Dakotas sync with more South Dakotans than is reflected in voter registration totals and the makeup of the South Dakota Legislature. 

“Too often we’re defined by our opponents. That’s not who the Democratic Party is,” Ahlers said. “I want to be that person that helps show the people of South Dakota that we’re worth your time and we’re worth your vote.” 

Ahlers was first elected to the South Dakota Senate in 2008 and has been involved in South Dakota politics ever since. He lost close races against Republican Tim Rave in 2010 (51%-49%) and 2012 (51%-49%) and then won a seat in the South Dakota House of Representatives in 2016.  

Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, the minority leader in the Senate, said he’s excited and grateful Ahlers has taken on the role with SDDP. 

“He understands lawmaking, gets along with everyone both within and outside of our party,” Nesiba told KELOLAND News. “(He) shares a vision consistent with our SDDP Chair Jennifer Slaight-Hansen. They are going to be an excellent team that helps us pick up seats in the SD legislature and to again win statewide races.”  

Ahlers said his goal right now is to see the party grow in South Dakota both in voter registration numbers and candidates elected to the state legislature. 

Republican voter registration numbers continue to grow

As of May 2023, there’s 301,412 Republicans, 151,142 Democrats, 148,386 Independents and 2,913 Libertarians according to the Secretary of State’s office. Since 2020, registered Republicans have gained more than 44,000 registered voters, while registered Democrats have decreased by more than 2,800. 

KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer noted Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. South Dakota’s Democrats in Congress, U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, voted for it. Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler voted against. As a result of it becoming federal law on May 20, 1993, independent registrations began to steadily climb in South Dakota — but Democrats began to slowly decline. 

Ahlers said it’s never been harder to reach people and he blames Republicans in South Dakota for linking the Democratic Party to President Joe Biden or the national platform. 

“We need to show by action. We need to do a better job of highlighting what we do,” Ahlers said. “Our opponents have much bigger microphones and have more stages to send messages out.” 

Ahlers also has experience running a statewide campaign. In 2020, he ran against U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and lost that race 65%-34%. In 2022, he fell 1,831 votes short in another bid for a SD House seat. 

Heading into 2024 and a presidential election year, Ahlers said he’s focused on building a team and recruiting candidates.   

“I don’t think one party has all the answers,” Ahlers said. “But I do think that when you look at what is important to South Dakotans, the Democratic Party really lines up with those values.”