SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Democrats started this year’s campaign with high hopes, recruited seemingly strong candidates and ran hard-fought campaigns. But when the votes were finally counted, Republicans once again had swept the state’s elections.
Republican Rep. Kristi Noem won election Tuesday to a second term as South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House, turning back an aggressive challenge from Democrat Matt Varilek.
Two GOP candidates held onto their seats on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, and Republicans kept their strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
And Mitt Romney won South Dakota’s three electoral votes, defeating President Barack Obama to continue the GOP’s domination of presidential politics in the heavily Republican state. Obama, however, won the national election.
Top officials in both parties said Romney’s win with 58 percent of the votes played a big role in the Republican successes in races further down the ballot.
“It makes it tough for the down-ballot candidates to have to outperform the top of the ticket by that much,” South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf said.
South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Tim Rave said Republicans who were motivated to vote by their dislike of Obama also helped elect GOP candidates in other races.
Neither Romney nor Obama campaigned in Republican-leaning South Dakota, as both sides focused their efforts on competitive states with more electoral votes. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried South Dakota since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson prevailed over Republican Barry Goldwater.
Voters said they believed Romney would do a better job of reviving the economy.
“I think the man’s a businessman. He knows how to do things,” said Dennis Nelson, a 56-year-old truck driver from Philip.
The economy also dominated the House race. Noem, a 40-year-old farmer and former state lawmaker, accused Varilek of supporting tax increases on middle-class families and small businesses and backing the health care overhaul she contends would increase costs instead of reducing them.
Varilek, a 37-year-old former congressional staffer, accused Noem of supporting Republican plans that he said would wreck Medicare, the health care program for retirees, and give tax breaks to the wealthy.
In her victory speech, Noem told supporters she would continue to seek spending cuts, a reduction in regulations that stifle businesses and the simplification of tax laws.
“But our debt is a fundamental threat to all of it,” Noem said. “It threatens our children, and our children’s children, and it threatens our national security and our ability to continue to fund our priorities.”
Varilek said he’s proud his campaign emphasized the need to help middle-class people instead of the wealthy.
“I wish the results had been different, but I’ll walk out of this building with my head held high because we did something brave,” Varilek told his supporters.
Varilek, who previously worked as Sen. Tim Johnson’s economic development director in South Dakota, had hammered Noem for missing many House committee meetings and failing to get a farm bill passed before Congress recessed for the election. She said she attended most of the meetings she was accused of missing and missed others because she couldn’t be in two meetings in once.
That issue struck home with Mike Sanovia, 47, a marketing representative in Sioux Falls who said he voted for Varilek because Noem had missed meetings.
“Kristi is not there, and she’s going back and forth on our dime,” Sanovia said.
However, Chad Hank, a 39-year-old insurance company manager from Tea, said he wasn’t swayed by Varilek’s ads attacking Noem for missing meetings.
“I felt comfortable with what she’s done for South Dakota over the last couple of years,” Hank said. “I think she’s been a good voice for agriculture and the state of South Dakota.”
Republicans Chris Nelson and Kristie Fiegen won new terms on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, meaning the GOP will continue to hold all three seats on the panel that regulates grain warehouses and natural gas, electric and telephone utilities. Nelson, a 48-year-old former secretary of state, defeated Democrat Nick Nemec, 53, a farmer and former state lawmaker. Fiegen defeated Democratic challenger Matt McGovern, 40, a Sioux Falls lawyer and grandson of former Sen. George McGovern.
Voters also rejected Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s plan to give merit pay to teachers and a proposal to boost the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, with the extra money split between schools and Medicaid.