SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Nicole Heenan wants to be judged as a fifth-generation South Dakotan or a small business owner, not as a Democrat.
But on the November 2022 ballot, she’ll be listed as both the lone challenger to Republican incumbent Helene Duhamel in District 32, which is made up of central and northern areas of Rapid City, and a Democrat.
“I’m tired of a two-party system,” Heenan said. “I feel like it’s an antiquated system, but it’s what we’ve got to work with right now.”
Heenan is one of 54 Democrat candidates listed by the Secretary of State’s office running for one of South Dakota’s 105 legislative seats. Republicans held a 94-11 advantage in Pierre the past two years and will have more than 150 candidates running at least one candidate for every legislative seat.
“I think we would always love to have more candidates,” Berk Ehrmantraut, the South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Director, told KELOLAND News. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to be really competitive and pick up some seats this year in the legislature.”
Ehrmantraut pointed to 2021 redistricting and some targeted districts as ways for South Dakota Democrats to send more lawmakers to Pierre. And one example of redistricting is District 32. Heenan said the district is comprised of roughly 5,400 registered Republicans, 4,800 registered Democrats and 4,200 independents.
“It’s a pretty balanced district,” Heenan said. “And I guess at the end of the day, I would like to transcend party politics.”
Heenan, who ran for a spot on the Pennington County commission as an independent in 2018, said she reluctantly switched from an independent to Democrat a month ago. She said the national tone of the Democratic Party is not applicable or appropriate to South Dakota, but said running as an independent for state office was not efficient.
“When you look at the asymmetry and how little diversity South Dakota has, it’s heartbreaking,” Heenan said. “I want to work really hard at coming up with sensible solutions instead of the same narrative and divisive politics that South Dakota seems to have settled into.”
Erin Royer is another Democrat candidate, running for House in District 12, which is an area of central and southwestern Sioux Falls. Royer also ran for office in 2020 and said the process of meeting local voters was very rewarding.
“When you start knocking on doors, you find a lot of us want the same things for our communities,” Royer said. “We want a good economy, we want good schools, we want an environment that’s safe for agriculture and good for pheasant hunting.”
Royer said she wants voters to understand she’s running to represent all the people in District 12, not just members of her party. District 12 roughly breaks down into 6,700 registered Republicans, 4,600 independents and 4,400 registered Democrats.
“I’ve met a lot who have told me they don’t like Nancy Pelosi,” Royer said. “I say Nancy Pelosi isn’t running to represent District 12, I am. What do you think of what I’m saying?”
Outside of local races, the statewide voter registration numbers from this month show South Dakota has 282,255 registered Republicans, 151,984 Democrats, 140,845 independents and 2,641 Libertarians.
KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer noted Republicans added 54,055 voters since 2002, while Democrats lost 31,359 voters and independent voters climbed the most with 77,674 new voters.
Ehrmantraut said registered voters should know only registered Republicans can vote in Republican primaries, while Democrats and independents alike can vote in Democratic primaries.
That standard doesn’t hold true for gathering signatures, where Ehrmantraut said many candidates heard from registered Republicans or registered independents wanting to sign for them but couldn’t.
“A few people actually changed their registration because they really wanted to sign the petitions,” Ehrmantraut said. “If you are filling out your voter registration or updating your voter registration, it’s something important to think about – ‘Do I want to be able to sign petitions for Democratic candidates?’”
While Democrats will leave 23 Senate seats and nine House seats uncontested, Ehrmantraut said having more than 50 candidates for state Senate or House was in the range the party was aiming for. He added the SDDP is looking to have competitive races for U.S. Senate and Governor.
For a second election in a row, there won’t be a Democrat to challenge U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson.