Democrats hit historic "low point"George McGovern says the South Dakota Democratic Party can become competitive again with the right approach and plenty of effort. McGovern, who has a Mitchell residence, has an idea how to do it: Follow the playbook he devised more than a half century ago. He was the executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party in the 1950s when the Democrats were in worse condition than they are now.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
George McGovern says the South Dakota Democratic Party can become competitive again with the right approach and plenty of effort.
McGovern, who has a Mitchell residence, has an idea how to do it: Follow the playbook he devised more than a half century ago.
He was the executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party in the 1950s when the Democrats were in worse condition than they are now.
When he took the reins of the party in 1953, the party was at its nadir. Democrats were outnumbered 108-2 in the Legislature and held no statewide offices. McGovern recalled traveling the state to meet county party chairmen and having some tell him they were no longer Democrats.
One county chairman asked McGovern to keep his connection to the party a secret. If word leaked out, his business would be ruined, the chairman said.
Under McGovern’s leadership of the party in 1954, 24 Democrats were elected to the Legislature. The momentum continued into 1956, when McGovern launched his national political career with his election to Congress. He went on to win election to the Senate and was the national Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1972.
It all started in the 1950s, when he worked long hours and compiled a detailed file of contacts from across the state to rebuild the party. He advises current party officials to follow the same path.
“I think they’ve got to do the same thing,” McGovern said this week. “They’ve got to find someone who will work day and night.”
Not everyone agrees.
Democrat Todd Epp, of Harrisburg, a writer who has operated a liberal blog for several years, thinks pining for the old McGovern days is a waste of time.
“Many Democratic activists think by repeating ‘grassroots campaigning’ like a holy totem, that wins elections. The old-timers point to some McGovern campaign back in the 1950s or early 1960s where that approach worked.”
Epp, 51, said that’s not modern thinking.
“Money wins elections. Money for a campaign infrastructure,” he said. “And most importantly, money for polling and media buys. The state’s Republicans have figured that out. We haven’t.
“The Republicans have given their precinct and local party officials, in my observation, real responsibility and appreciation. They feel they are part of the ‘winning team.’ Meanwhile, we Democrats are always trying to put together that same type of ‘machine.’
“The Republicans fine-tune their grassroots effort and it flies easily and effectively; we are in a constant state of trying to make a prototype that can get airborne.”
Full slates needed
McGovern said when he led the party, he worked to see there was a full Democratic ticket in every county. “That’s what I think has got to happen again,” McGovern said.
He was surprised by the degree of the Democratic demise in the Nov. 2 election. The Democrats failed to field a U.S. Senate candidate, lost control of the U.S. House seat, lost the governor’s race, lost all six state constitutional officer races, and saw their numbers in the Legislature shrink to 25 out of 105. The number of Democratic legislators shrunk even further this week when one of them defected to the Republican Party.
“I was disappointed,” McGovern said. “I felt we had good candidates.”
McGovern is unsure what Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., will do now. They have talked since the election, in which Herseth Sandlin was denied a fourth full term when she was beaten by state Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood.
McGovern said he does not know if she will remain in the state and run for office in the future or return to Washington, D.C., where her husband, former Texas congressman Max Sandlin, has a career as a lobbyist.
Herseth Sandlin declined to comment for this story.
She has not spoken to the media or made a public appearance since Election Night, although she did return to Washington this week and has cast a few votes on routine matters of business before the House.
McGovern said when he spoke with Herseth Sandlin, she sounded calm and accepted the outcome of the election.
“She’s a professional,” he said.
Johnson: ‘It’s a low point’
On Jan. 5, as Herseth Sandlin leaves office, Sen. Tim Johnson will be South Dakota’s lone Democrat in Congress. For a few months in 2004, after she won a special election, Johnson, then-Sen. Tom Daschle and Herseth Sandlin formed an all-Democratic delegation.
Those glory days seem long distant now.
“It’s a low point, no doubt about it,” Johnson said. “I knew it would be a tough race and a tough year in Stephanie’s position. She will bounce back. I have confidence that the opportunity do many things will appear.”
Johnson and Herseth Sandlin spoke on the phone Wednesday night, he said. It was the first conversation they had since the election.
“Wished her well and said she had run a good race,” he said.
Johnson, 63, said he didn’t offer Herseth Sandlin any advice, nor did she ask for any. He said he doesn’t have an inkling what her plans are for the future or if she will run again.
“I don’t know about that but I wouldn’t be surprised,” Johnson said. “She’s not made up her mind yet and I respect that. She will bounce back, no doubt about that.”
Johnson served four years in the state House and four years in the state Senate during years when the state Republican Party was reassuming its control over the state’s politics. He said Democrats were outnumbered two-to-one during his years in the Legislature.
Republican Bill Janklow was in his first eight-year run as governor and Republicans Larry Pressler and Jim Abdnor were the state’s senators after Abdnor defeated McGovern in 1980. Daschle, then in the House, was the most high-profile Democrat in the state then.
Democrats have endured “ebbs and flows” over the years, Johnson said.
But even during the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan leading a Republican resurgence across the nation, Johnson positioned himself for a run for national office.
“There is no one route to the race for Congress. There are many ways to get there,” he said. “The people of South Dakota have always appreciated being represented by moderates, no matter the party affiliation.”
Johnson declined to reveal his plans for 2014, when his third Senate term will expire.
“I’ll make up my mind about that as time goes on,” he said. “I still have four years to go.”
The state’s senior senator said he isn’t concerned about the national political climate if he decides to seek another term.
“I have run for Congress and the Senate both during good times and bad,” Johnson said. “Doesn’t make much difference to me personally.”
Johnson said he doesn’t view Rep.-elect Kristi Noem as a potential rival in 2014.
“I wish her well. I will have her over to see me in a few days,” he said. “I have four years to go. I don’t pay attention to such matters.”
Daschle: ‘We’re going to come back’
Daschle said he doesn’t pay much attention to South Dakota politics anymore but did notice the defeats in his home state.
“Politics always has gone in cycles. Back when I got started it was pretty bleak and dark for Democrats,” he said. “I expect we’re going to come back. It will take a cycle or two.”
He has not spoken to Herseth Sandlin in some time, he said. He did no campaigning for her this fall but did make some recorded calls for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Heidepriem.
Daschle said he has no idea if she will run again.
“That’s totally up to Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin. I wouldn’t want to advise her,” he said. “I think it’s premature to count someone that talented out for all time. I think she’s got many of the characteristics of a successful political leader.”
He said McGovern has had an enduring impact on the state party.
“He is the godfather of the Democratic Party and really the soul of the party,” Daschle said. “I think he serves as an inspiration to younger political leaders who come along.”
While he returns to Aberdeen, his hometown, from time to time to see his mother, he doesn’t seek a role in South Dakota Democratic politics. Daschle said he did so when he was in office and feels it’s something top officials need to do.
“I’ve always felt it was really incumbent upon the people who have the position and the means to help others,” he said. “I think it is important to be involved and try to encourage people to run for office and be involved with public service.”
Steve Kolbeck, one of three members of the Public Utilities Commission, is the lone Democrat with a statewide office. He joked in Pierre in 2009 that he could hold a party caucus meeting by himself.
Democrats lost eight state Senate seats in the Nov. 2 election, dropping from 14 to five with the announcement Thursday that Sen.-elect Eldon Nygaard, of Vermillion, has switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. There will be 30 Republican senators.
Democrats will have just 19 House members, down from 24. There will be 50 Republican representatives and one independent.
Rick Hauffe, a communications and public affairs consultant from Sioux Falls, is a former two-time executive director of the state party. Hauffe also covered several elections during an earlier career as a newspaper reporter.
“What happened in the top three races was the ridiculous decision to not recruit a competitor for the U.S. Senate seat for the first time in South Dakota Democratic Party history,” he said. “This allowed Congresswoman-elect Kristi Noem a completely free hand to play the anti-incumbent card for all that it was worth while the so-called tea party message was out there.
“Just about every argument Noem used against Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would have been taken off the table because the other congressional incumbent, Sen. John Thune, wasted no time climbing the ladder to partisan leadership and talking up his presidential aspirations to the national press.”
Hauffe said what a lot of Democrats have been whispering for months: Herseth Sandlin didn’t energize her base and it cost her on Nov. 2.
“Stephanie’s TV ads were like Kryptonite for her moderate and liberal base, especially women. Yes, she is for reproductive rights, but the cheerfulness which she used to say she voted against health-care reform was discouraging to a lot of her base,” he said. “This election, the willingness to give money or volunteer for her dropped like a rock.”
Hauffe said he thinks the pendulum will swing back. He said Democrats endured a low period in the late 1970s and early 1980s and emerged strong again in the 1990s, as Daschle and Johnson held both Senate seats.
“Tom Daschle survived that, and the party rebuilt itself around his agenda and later expanded. When I started working with the state party in 1987, we set our sights on winning back Pierre by putting our emphasis on winning state legislative seats.
“We shot for maximum candidate recruitment, worked with legislators during each session, developed winning messages and issues, trained candidates and supplied in-house services to make sure candidates ran smart mail and radio campaigns,” Hauffe said. “We refined this strategy in the 1992 election, and with the help of a big donation from Senator Daschle’s campaign, Democrats won the state Senate for the first time in state history without the benefit of a seated Democratic governor.”
He felt the party was headed in the right direction during his second tenure as its executive director in 2007-08, and despite an unexpectedly rough 2010, not all hope is lost, Hauffe said.
“They can come back from this disaster, but only by raising the money, recruiting a maximum slate of candidates and building messages and issues that are meaningful during each legislative session and on the campaign,” he said.
Erin McCarrick, the current executive director of the state party, said she doesn’t want to spend time discussing the 2010 election.
McCarrick said it’s time to rebuild the party, reach out to young voters and look to the future.
“It’s about engaging the young people,” she said.
‘Two nickels and a Tic-Tac’
Epp said he thinks it will be difficult to attract quality candidates for his party.
“Why should someone who has had success in business, government, or other aspects of life who is a Democrat run for office, knowing that their party cannot help to fund them so they are competitive?” Epp said. “The Republicans do a good job of not just recruiting good candidates but giving them the financial resources to win.
“Unless you are wealthy or you don’t mind running with just two nickels and a Tic-Tac to rub together in your pocket, most Democrats will get outspent in South Dakota — and lose,” he said.
Epp has attended three state Democratic conventions as a delegate from Lincoln County and worked or volunteered for a number of state and local Democratic candidates.
He has a pessimistic view of the party.
“I’ve sat in way too many meetings where we were more concerned about fighting with each other than figuring out how to beat our Republican opponents,” he said.
A pair of young, would-be leaders has emerged for the South Dakota Democratic Party.
Outgoing state Sen. Ben Nesselhuf, of Vermillion, who lost this year’s secretary of state race, is one of two announced candidates for chairman of the party. State Rep. Mitch Fargen, of Flandreau, who won his re-election bid, has also announced his candidacy. Fargen was elected assistant House minority leader at a Democratic gathering held after the election.
“This November’s election really shocked a lot of us in South Dakota and it got a lot of people thinking about what we need to do for the future of the Democrat Party and for the state of South Dakota,” Fargen said.
“Because of this, I have talked to many people across the state and I am focused on moving the party forward,” he said. “We need to ensure our legislators in Pierre have the support they need, we need to continue to build the party from the county and legislative district levels, and we need to ensure we have the financial resources to compete. I have the track record and leadership to do just that.”
Nesselhuf admitted the party took a thorough whipping.
“Our party suffered historic setbacks that we haven’t seen since the 1960s,” Nesselhuf said. “This state organization founded by George McGovern has seen worse times.
“We have always found it within ourselves and in each other to build back up,” Nesselhuf said. “We can do better and better in the next four years and I will do my part as chair to reach this achievable goal.”
He agrees with Epp about the need to better fund campaigns and also said he would reduce expenses for the state party.
“To rebuild successfully, Democrats in South Dakota need to get back to basics of raising enough money to compete in 2012. My goal is to create a more successful fundraising and messaging machine,” Nesselhuf said.
Nesselhuf raised more than $200,000 for his race, a party record for a constitutional office candidate, and he has worked to recruit Democrats to run for office.
“I know Democrats can be winners. We have the courage of our convictions to move America and South Dakota forward,” he said.
Johnson said he feels Nesselhuf and Fargen represent a new generation of Democratic leaders in the state.
“I know them both well. I’ve worked with them and respect them,” he said. “Their interest shows the interest in the party. It is my hope that both these talented men will stay active and involved and rebuild the party.”
Johnson’s son, Brendan, who was named South Dakota’s U.S. attorney in October 2009, is also widely seen as a possible Democratic Party star in the future. Tim Johnson said he is unsure if his son will run for office someday and said he has never tried to talk him into it.
Brendan Johnson said since his post is nonpartisan, he doesn’t talk about politics or attend political events. He said when he sees his dad, it’s usually in the role of father and grandfather, not as a senator or Democratic Party leader.
‘In due time’
Tim Johnson said he doesn’t fear the Democratic Party is doomed to permanent minority status in South Dakota.
“Not by any means,” he said. “We’ll come back in due time.”
McGovern said he also feels his party has a future. Democrats just need to roll up their sleeves, hit the road and get to work, he said, no matter how long the odds appear to be right now.
That’s the path he followed in the 1950s, and it led to his election to Congress in 1956 and 1958, followed by three terms in the Senate.
The 1958 election also saw a Democrat elected governor, only the third Democrat to hold that office. His name was Ralph Herseth, the grandfather of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
Herseth served one term as governor but was defeated for re-election. He lost a third race in 1962 and never ran for office again. But his wife, Lorna Herseth, served as secretary of state from 1973 to 1979.
Their son, Lars, served 20 years in the Legislature and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1986, losing a close race to Republican George S. Mickelson. Lars’ daughter, Stephanie, born the year after Ralph Herseth died in 1969, learned politics from her father and grandmother.
She was a new star for the Democrats in 2002, running a competitive race against Janklow for the state’s House seat. She lost, but when Janklow was forced from office, she ran in and won a special election in June 2004.
Herseth Sandlin won full terms in November 2004, 2006 and 2008. She was seen as the bright hope for the party. That star dimmed on Nov. 2 with her loss to Noem.
Now, although she will only turn 40 next month, she is a living symbol of the South Dakota Democratic Party: Her future is uncertain.
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