It’s another rough time for the South Dakota Democratic Party.
It lost its leader, Randy Seiler, who died two weeks ago after suffering a heart attack. He was 76.
Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, who was elected as the new SDDP chair in February, took office early after Seiler’s death.
“My goal is to find common ground, common ground amongst all of us,” she said on Feb. 25 when the SDDP selected a new leadership team. “Something that will move us forward.”
That’s the right direction. The party has been stuck in neutral, with some slips into reverse, for several years now. It holds no statewide offices, hasn’t won a statewide race since 2008 and hasn’t won a gubernatorial race since 1974. Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers.
As of May 1, there were 301,412 registered Republicans in South Dakota, nearly double the number of Democrats, 151,142. The Democrats are in very real danger of slipping into third place, as there are 148,386 independents in the state and their numbers grow every month. Only the Democrats see their totals decline.
How can that change? Can the trend be reversed? It will take hard work, with a monthly, weekly, daily effort to register voters. There has been no evidence that has been tried in recent years. There are areas where potential Democratic voters live, work and recreate — larger cities, including workplaces that are heavily unionized, college campuses and Indian reservations.
Are Democrats working there? I have seen no evidence of that.
That’s the job primarily of the party’s executive director, and once again, there’s a turnover there. Berk Ehrmantraut was hired in June 2021, but he is leaving.
Ehrmantraut assembled a team of young people who worked for and with him. Most had relatively brief histories in politics, and they didn’t get a lot accomplished during his time in charge. It was a very quiet two years, as the SDDP rarely popped up in statewide media, a curious choice for a party short of money. Why not pursue free media coverage?
Things weren’t much better on Election Day. The SDDP did not challenge Congressman Dusty Johnson in either 2020 or 2022. It recruited a candidate in 2022 but that quickly ended in disaster when Ryan Ryder dropped out a day after he entered the race when some odd social media posts were discovered. That’s on him and the state party for not taking care of it before he jumped into the race.
Seiler and Ehrmantraut announced a strategy to compete for three top positions — governor, U.S. Senate and Congress — and running candidates in selected legislative districts to try to raise the number of Democrats in Pierre.
But that failed. Johnson was unopposed. Sen. John Thune breezed past Brian Bengs, a former independent from Iowa who changed his state and party registration, and Gov. Kristi Noem easily defeated Sioux Falls state Rep. Jamie Smith, who struggled to gain traction all summer and fall despite his best efforts.
There were 11 Democratic legislators in 2021-22 and there will be 11 in 2023-24. Not losing ground is the best the SDDP can do right now.
Maybe Dan Ahlers, the new executive director, can help turn things around. Ahlers, a former one-term Democratic legislator from Dell Rapids, was the party’s candidate against Sen. Mike Rounds in 2020; he was thrashed, losing almost two-to-one, 65.7 percent to 34.3 percent.
Ahlers sought to return to the state House of Representatives in 2022, but he finished third in a race for a District 25 seat. Now, he will try to be a campaign and party strategist.
It’s also been a time of transition for the party. In addition to Seiler, Dr. Jack Billion, a former Sioux Falls state representative who ran for governor in 2006 and was the party’s chairman, died on Feb. 23 at the age of 83.
Billion served two terms in the state House. He was an accomplished surgeon and a bright, decent man who really seemed uninterested in running for governor. I covered that race closely and talked with him several times. Billion was crushed by Gov. Mike Rounds 61.7% to 36.1%.
Sen. James Abourezk, who died on his 92nd birthday on Feb. 24, was the exact opposite. Abourezk was an enthusiastic candidate who relished talking with voters and reporters. He only sought statewide office twice, running for Congress in 1970 — as a liberal Democrat in West River! — and for Senate in 1972, and won both times.
When I interviewed him in 2019, Abourezk said South Dakota Democrats could run and win, but it would require dedication and commitment. He told me when he ran, he worked 18-hour days seven days a week. Abourezk said he was up at daybreak to shake hands with workers as they started their day and he finished up around midnight at bowling alleys, chatting with folks and asking for their vote.
Democrats can still win in South Dakota, he said. I asked if he really thought that was possible in this day and age, with the state turning such a bright shade of red.
“I do, I do,” Abourezk said. “If only they would just get to work.”
That assignment got a lot tougher with Seiler’s sad departure. He was stepping down as chairman, but his fighting spirit and dedication to the party would have been an asset.
Slaight-Hansen, a former Aberdeen city councilor, has a lot of work to do. The SDDP also needs to recruit candidates — starting now — as well as raise money and register voters. It also must devise a more effective media and outreach campaign.
The party of McGovern, Kneip, Abourezk, Daschle, Johnson and Herseth Sandlin needs new leaders, new voices, new ideas. But it must rely on a tried and true pattern to make a significant impact in South Dakota — hard work.
But even that might not make much of a difference, frankly. The SDDP has grown weaker and weaker, and it will take some remarkable changes or events to alter that course. But there are limited reasons for optimism.
The scandals and family feuds that have erupted in the state with Republicans in total control seem to offer the Democrats avenues to gain more power and influence. It won’t be easy, but what other choice do they have if they want to make a difference?
Tom Lawrence, a fourth-generation South Dakota, has written for numerous newspapers, including The Black Hills Pioneer, The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, The New York Times and other news organizations across the country. He lives in Sioux Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
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