PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Republican candidates for the South Dakota Legislature are battling one another this spring, as two factions simultaneously try to protect seats each already has while fighting to take more from the other. Helping fuel that rivalry are South Dakota’s campaign finance laws, which are less than tight.
Here’s a look at some examples of how those laws contribute to the free-wheeling campaigns.
The Liberty Tree political action committee is a new force formed last year. Representative Scott Odenbach, a Spearfish Republican, is treasurer. Liberty Tree has drawn from a handful of major contributors, such as $10,000 apiece from Representative Liz May, of Kyle, and Representative John Mills, of Volga, and redistributed much of it, in increments of of $250, $500 or $1,000, to 39 Republican legislative candidates, including 13 current lawmakers such as Julie Frye-Mueller and Phil Jensen of Rapid City, Spencer Gosch, of Glenham, Al Novstrup and Kaleb Weis of Aberdeen, and Bethany Soye, Sue Peterson and Chris Karr of Sioux Falls.
The Schoenbeck for Senate legislative committee meanwhile is playing a big role again this election cycle. Senator Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican, uses the committee to bring in contributions from a variety of sources, and then redistributes the money to other campaigns. This year, the money has gone out largely in chunks of $500 or $1,000, to 38 legislative candidates, including 12 current office-holders, such as Mary Duvall and Will Mortenson of Pierre, Mike Weisgram, of Fort Pierre, Brian Breitling, of Miller, Taylor Rehfeldt and Mark Willadsen of Sioux Falls, and David Johnson and Tim Goodwin of Rapid City.
Despite all being Republicans, the two sets of candidates have no overlap. Instead, many are competing against one another for Republican nominations in the June 7 primary elections. For example, Goodwin is trying to unseat Frye-Mueller, while Gosch is taking on Breitling.
Schoenbeck’s campaign committee however didn’t spend all of its money on candidates. It also sent $25,000 to a political action committee that he and Don Roby of Watertown also run. Known as South Dakota Strong, its main purpose this spring appears to be to pay for advertising — $138,000 so far, according to the report filed this week. But there are no names listed of those who might be helped or hurt. That’s because South Dakota law doesn’t require that level of detail on campaign finance reports.
While a person can give a statewide candidate up to $4,000 per year and a legislative candidate up to $1,000 per year, state campaign law allows a person to give a political action committee $10,000 per year. Just as Representatives May and Mills contributed the max for Liberty Tree, others did for South Dakota Strong, such as Miles Beacom of Sioux Falls, and Hani Shafai and Harry Christianson of Rapid City.
But there’s no limit on how much a statewide or legislative candidate can accept from a state political action committee. And that’s worked to the advantage of Governor Kristi Noem, who’s aligned with the Schoenbeck faction and, through her position, is potentially one of the biggest players on the legislative battleground this year.
Noem has her own statewide candidate committee, known as Kristi for Governor, but it doesn’t show any contributions to other candidates this spring. While that seems odd, she instead raised money through a federal political action committee, the Noem Victory Fund, which operates under federal regulations rather than state laws.
The Noem Victory committee then transferred $133,254.93 on December 27, 2021, to a state political action committee that her campaign chairman, Steve Kirby of Sioux Falls, also chairs, known as SD Strong Leadership — not to be confused with Schoenbeck’s South Dakota Strong. The Noem Victory committee transferred another $58,315.13 to SD Strong Leadership this year.
SD Strong Leadership in turn is the committee that made the contributions to legislative candidates. The committee contributed $5,000 apiece — remember, while a person can give a legislative candidate at most $1,000 per year, there are no state limits on how much legislative candidates can receive from PACs — to three legislative candidates: Breitling, Goodwin and Stephanie Sauder of Bryant.
Sauder, a retired teacher and now editor/publisher of the Bryant Dakotan weekly newspaper, is one of four candidates for the two Republican nominations in House District 4, along with incumbent Fred Deutsch, of Florence, former legislator Val Rausch, of Big Stone City, and Adam Grimm, of Wallace. Bryant is also where the governor calls home, and her husband has his insurance business, when they’re not in Pierre.
To read more about South Dakota’s campaign finance limits, go here.