By David Montgomery
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — South Dakota Democrats have conceded three statewide races to Republicans this fall, a once-rare phenomenon becoming increasingly common.
At the party's convention this past weekend in Yankton, Democrats nominated no candidates for attorney general, state auditor or public lands commissioner. That means Republican nominees Marty Jackley, Steve Barnett and Ryan Brunner win by default.
Jackley and Barnett are incumbents. Brunner is a first-time candidate running for an open seat — the first time a non-incumbent candidate will go unopposed for a partisan office in South Dakota's 125-year history.
"It's not a big mystery that the Democratic Party in South Dakota is weaker than it's been in some time," said Ken Blanchard, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. "It's the inability to attract candidates that's really hurting them all across the board."
Until this year, statewide candidates had won unopposed only seven times in South Dakota history — and all but one of those were in the past two decades, according to the Argus Leader. All cases involve Republicans winning by default when Democrats didn't run.
Democrats conceded a PUC race in 1946, attorney general and state auditor in 1998, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state in 2006, and U.S. Senate in 2010.
This year, Democrats were recruiting for several months before their party convention. Former statewide candidates, including Julie Bartling and Jeff Barth, were approached to run and declined.
Secretary of state nominee Angelia Schultz and Public Utilities Commission nominee David Allen both decided to make the plunge in the final weeks. But party leaders still were recruiting for other races on the final day of the convention, when assembled delegates had to make final choices about who to nominate.
"They were struggling to find the right person, and they kept coming back to me over the weekend, and I finally relented and said I'd do it," said Dennis Pierson, the party's nominee for treasurer. "I went to the convention as a delegate ... to simply lend my voice to the platform and try to help formulate things and discuss with other people their candidacies and encourage them to run."
Republicans had an advantage filling their seats: for a majority of constitutional offices, they had incumbents who could seek additional terms. But for the two open seats, secretary of state and lands commissioner, Republicans saw candidates emerge last summer.
Three weeks ago, Democratic officials assured people the lack of candidates was nothing to worry about.
"I'm confident we'll have a full slate of constitutional candidates," party executive director Zach Crago said June 9.
Crago did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Barth, a Minnehaha county commissioner who declined requests to run for PUC, said pessimism about Democrats' chances this fall led him to pass.
"To give up a pretty good chance of re-election to run for something like the PUC or School and Public Lands — it's hard to carry the ticket on your coattails from the bottom of the ticket," Barth said. "If we'd had a stronger ticket, maybe they could have persuaded me to get on board for something."
Blanchard said that's a sort of Catch-22 for Democrats.
"If you're consistently below Republican strength across the state, then it's hard for Democratic candidates to win election. The other side of that is that it's hard to attract good candidates to run in an election if it looks like that it's sort of a doomed effort from the very beginning," Blanchard said. "Those two things reinforce each other."
Parties encourage candidates to run in part by promising support for the coming campaign. But Barth said Democrats might not have been able to promise enough.
"Opportunities — 'How about you run attorney general, here's $60,000 (in campaign funds),' that was not forthcoming," Barth said. "I heard that for one of those positions, like School and Public Lands, somebody was offered $4,000 and free tickets to the McGovern Day Dinner. ... That's probably not enough to make someone expose themselves to ridicule."
Blanchard acknowledged that Democrats face uphill battles in the races they didn't contest. But he said it's "not good for South Dakota" to have statewide races without a choice for voters.
"You can't win without a candidate," Blanchard said. He cited Stephanie Herseth, who ran for U.S. House in 2002 even though Bill Janklow was a prohibitive favorite. Herseth lost but set herself up to win the seat two years later when Janklow resigned.
"Running against Janklow, she was probably pretty doomed when she did," he said. "But it did set her up. Unless you've got candidates in those races, you can't take advantage of unforced errors."