Has South Dakota’s Republican Party become too big? That’s the question facing Republicans and Democrats in the final week before the November 6 election.
Since former state legislator Dan Lederman took the statewide Republican Party chairmanship from incumbent Pam Roberts 20 months ago, despite her support from the governor, Republican voter registration has increased slightly.
But Democrats have dropped thousands.
From February 2017, when Lederman gained power, through October 1, Republicans gained about 150 registered voters, reaching 253,933.
For the same period, Democrats lost more than 13,000 registered voters, falling to 157,118.
Independents and voters not affiliated with any party continued to grow the most, rising by more than 3,200 to 124,539.
Falling farther behind has left Democratic Party leaders such as state chairwoman Ann Tornberg seeking support from the open middle and, in a throwback to campaigns from a decade ago, looking for Republicans willing to cross lines in at least one or two contests.
In the past month, Democratic Attorney General Candidate Randy Seiler announced he had endorsements from two Republicans who previously were elected as South Dakota’s Attorney General.
They are Mark Meierhenry of Sioux Falls and Roger Tellinghuisen of Rapid City.
The Republican candidate, Jason Ravnsborg, has backing from former AG and Gov. Frank Farrar. He also lists a majority of county sheriffs across South Dakota.
Farrar lost his 1970 re-election bid to Dick Kneip, the most recent instance when South Dakota voters backed a Democrat for governor.
Seiler was South Dakota’s U.S. attorney during the final months of President Obama’s administration and the first months of President Trump’s new administration.
Seiler recently emphasized Ravnsborg’s shortage of criminal prosecution experience by providing reporters with copies of anti-Ravnsborg literature distributed at the statewide Republican convention by John Fitzgerald and Lance Russell.
In a series of showdowns, Republican convention delegates chose Ravnsborg for the Republican nomination over Fitzgerald, the current Lawrence County State’s Attorney, and Russell, a past Fall River County State’s Attorney and current state Senator.
Ravnsborg has run once previously. He placed last, with less than three percent of the statewide vote, in the five-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat in 2014. Former Gov. Mike Rounds won the primary and the November election.
The current attorney general, Marty Jackley, lost the Republican nomination for governor back in June this year to U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.
Noem has found herself in a dead heat against state Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton. One reason is Sutton is seeking Republicans who backed Jackley or didn’t vote at all in the June primary.
Last Friday, Sutton held a news conference announcing some big-name Republicans as his supporters.
Significant Republican past officeholders backing Sutton’s candidacy included U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, state treasurer Dave Volk of Sioux Falls and state lawmakers Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls, Stan Adelstein of Rapid City, Kay Jorgensen of Spearfish, Joyce Hodges of Lake Preston, Mark DeVries of Belvidere and Dick Werner, formerly of Huron and now from Herreid.
Republicans listed by Sutton at the county- or city-office level included current or former Minnehaha and Lincoln County Commission members Jim Schmidt and Carol Twedt, former Sioux Falls Mayor Rick Knobe, former Sioux Falls City Councilor De Knudson and former Pennington County Republican chairman Brian Hagg.
He also has a Facebook page, Republicans for Sutton, that carries this message: “Tired of the partisan politics? Not a fan of Kristi? We have the group for you.”
Noem has a counter-attack group called Fact Check Gnomes that issued a statement criticizing Republicans backing Sutton. The news release featured a cartoon that showed a gnome atop a rhinoceros and one word — RINO — that is shorthand in GOP circles for the term, “Republicans In Name Only.”
The Gnomes focused most on Pressler. They said Pressler voted for Democrat Obama in 2008, endorsed Obama in 2012 and backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Alongside Pressler were various members of Republicans for Daschle, Republicans for Johnson and Republicans for Herseth,” the Noem-funded statement said, listing the three most-recent Democratic members of Congress. Thune defeated Tom Daschle for the U.S. Senate seat in 2004. Noem beat Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin for the U.S. House seat in 2010. And Tim Johnson chose to retire rather than seek re-election in 2014.
A recent KELOLAND Media Group-Argus Leader statewide poll nonetheless showed the Noem-Sutton contest deadlocked in mid-October, with Noem drawing more support from male voters and Sutton getting more support from female voters.
In the days after those numbers became public, Noem began airing television ads featuring endorsements from Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Republican U.S. John Thune.
Democrats don’t hold any statewide elected offices and that’s left Sutton unable to counter.
Daugaard sent an email this week, funded by the Noem campaign, that highlighted the support from all four top Republican office-holders, including Rounds and Jackley. “We know she will work hard to protect our values and lead our state in the right direction,” part of Daugaard’s message said.
The South Dakota Republican Party meanwhile has mailed thousands of flyers critical of Sutton in recent days.
One called Peas in a Pod shows Sutton, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The back side carries the line, “Billie Sutton says he voted for Hillary Clinton but supports the policies of Bernie Sanders.” It lists Sutton and Sanders supporting socialized medicine, pro-choice and pro-abortion policies, open borders and amnesty for illegals, stricter gun laws, repealing the death penalty, higher taxes, allowing felons to vote, legalizing marijuana and opposed to balanced budgets.
Another Republican mailer asks why Sutton voted against harsher punishments for repeat drunk-driving offenders.
Both Sutton and Noem are courting undecided Republicans on TV. Sutton has an ad that specifically targets Republicans. Noem’s ad undercuts Sutton, ending with a woman saying: “You’re rooting for a liberal philosophy, and we don’t need that in South Dakota.”
Sutton’s campaign has trumpeted endorsements from the Sioux Falls and Rapid City newspapers.
The two campaigns have portrayed themselves in positive terms. A recent mailer from Billie Sutton carried the theme, “Putting South Dakota First.”
Noem recently sent a mailer promising, “She’ll measure success by how many people get off government programs and into high-wage jobs.”
Where those Republicans land could well decide the governor and attorney general contests.
Noem plans a 15-stop, three-day bus tour for the campaign’s final days. She’ll spend Saturday in northeastern and central South Dakota with Dusty Johnson, the Republican candidate against Democrat Tim Bjorkman in their fight for the U.S. House seat she’s giving up in her “All-In” bid for governor.
Sutton plans a 19-stop tour across South Dakota to visit with voters in the days before the election.