Red state gets redderGOP was ready for slight losses but instead picked up steam in Tuesday general election.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Tony Venhuizen said South Dakota Republicans expected to lose a little ground in Tuesday’s election.
They had three candidates running statewide, including Rep, Kristi Noem and Public Utilities Commissioners Chris Nelson and Kristie Fiegen.
In addition, the entire Legislature was up for election, as it is every two years, and large Republican majorities in both the Senate and House seemed like they might dwindle. The GOP had 80 legislators, and a conservative independent who caucused with them. The Democrats had 24 legislators.
Venhuizen, Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s director of policy and communications, as well as his son-in-law and an Armour native, said the GOP was braced for possible losses, especially with Democrat Matt McGovern, who carried perhaps the most famous political name in state history, challenging Fiegen.
When the dust cleared Tuesday night, Noem, Nelson and Fiegen had all won.
The Republicans held on to an 81-24 margin in Pierre, with independent Jenna Haggar now officially a Republican.
The Democrats gained two seats in the Senate, where they will enter the 2013 session out-numbered 28-7, but lost two in the House, where the breakdown will now be 53-17.
“It’s hard to call that anything but a big win for the Republicans, and by proxy a win for the governor,” Venhuizen said.
He said it seems like the South Dakota Democrats, with more legislative candidates signed up, a coordinated campaign, and more than $100,000 spent on postcards targeting Republican candidates, would have gained ground.
“I think it is pretty remarkable,” Venhuizen said. “So for Republicans, a great year statewide, great year in the Legislature. Nationwide, with Obama winning, a horrible year.”
Quick turn of fate
Venhuizen said it’s truly amazing how things have changed in the state in four years.
In 2008, Democrats did well in almost every area.
Sen. Tim Johnson, coming off a brain injury, was easily elected to a third term. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won a third term in a landslide, her second straight huge win.
Democrats cut the GOP edge in the state Senate to 20-15. They were also closing the gap in voter registration.
But in 2010, as Obama and his sweeping health-care proposal lost favor in much of the nation, and especially in South Dakota, and the country reeled from an economic downturn, the worm turned.
Herseth Sandlin was knocked out of office by Noem. The Democrats lost state Senate seats, falling to a near-60-year low with five senators.
Registration slid, and the party seemed adrift. Still, it seemed the Democrats had to show some progress, Venhuizen said.
Instead, President Obama, who put up a fairly good fight before falling to Sen. John McCain 53-45 percent in 2008, lost the state to Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 18 points.
House candidate Matt Varilek, who ran a strong campaign and raised nearly $1 million, was defeated 57.5-42.5 percent.
PUC candidates McGovern and Nick Nemec fell, with McGovern losing 54-40 to Fiegen, with a third-party candidate getting 6 percent, and Nemec getting crushed 67-33 percent by Nelson, a well-known former secretary of state who ran for Congress in 2010.
Democrats said they take some solace out of the defeat of Daugaard’s education reform plan, but a 1-percent sales tax hike they supported to boost education and Medicaid was also trounced.
Democrats decry redistricting
House Democratic Leader Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, of Yankton, said he feels newly drawn legislative districts, and a huge monetary advantage for Republicans, were the difference in this election.
“Redistricting clearly hurt us this go-round,” he said. “We had fewer competitive districts.”
The lines were drawn by the Republicans in charge of the Legislature, and they made sure to put several Democrats at a disadvantage, Hunhoff said.
The Republican “money machine” was also a major edge for them.
“We just couldn’t begin to match that,” Hunhoff said.
Republicans ran against President Obama, and the Democrats seemed to have no way to respond to that, he said, especially since Obama’s campaign did not send any staff or resources into the state.
“We got all the negatives of President Obama’s campaign and none of the positives,” Hunhoff said.
But he said he was not downcast after the votes were counted.
“I’m the eternal optimist,” Hunhoff said with a laugh. “You’ve seen parties bounce back. The bounce can be big.”
“Clearly the public is on our side on the policy issues,” he said, referring to the issues on the ballot. “The voters overwhelmingly said they were on our side. What we failed to do is translate those policy positions into votes for our candidates.”
State Rep. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland, was knocked out of office after serving 22 years in the Legislature.
Kloucek said there seems to be a disconnect in how voters made their choices at the polls.
“The people voted against the governor on two major ballot issues, yet they voted for the people who voted for those ballot issues and supported the governor 100 percent,” he said. “I guess the Democrats didn’t get the message across strong enough that they stand for education, jobs and fighting for senior citizens.”
He said serving in the Legislature was the “experience of a lifetime, and I thank the people of our area for that great opportunity,” and he’s not ready to say if he will run again. But Kloucek said it is challenging.
“This is a red state,” he said. “You expect that, especially with redistricting.”
Kloucek said he feels the Democrats can rebound if they convince voters they are “the party of the working people.”
South Dakota Democrats were also criticized for being associated with President Obama.
“They used that every step,” Kloucek said. “People would come up to you and say, ‘If you’re voting for Obama, we won’t vote for you.’ That was the spin that came out of Republican headquarters.”
Donald Simmons, Dakota Wesleyan University’s dean of the College of Leadership and Public Service and Graduate Studies, said he doesn’t think the election spells long-term doom for the Democrats.
“Political fortunes can change fairly quickly,” Simmons said.
But he said there are reasons it was such a tough year for Democrats in the state.
Simmons said the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee chose not to invest money in Varilek’s race, and that hurt in South Dakota, where Varilek was greatly outspent by Noem.
“Those elections sort of feed on each other,” he said. “If you are having a congressional race that is competitive, it kind of feeds to the bottom of the ticket.”
Governor bats .500
Daugaard was also in the spotlight Tuesday, even though he wasn’t on the ballot.
Daugaard endorsed Referred Law 14, which would have created a fund to boost large business development in the state. It was soundly defeated.
He also supported Referred Law 16, which was the education plan he pushed through the Legislature in 2011. It was overwhelmingly rejected.
But the governor also backed Constitutional Amendment P, which mandates the state pass a balanced budget, and Constitutional Amendment O, which alters how the cement plant trust fund money is distributed. Both passed.
Venhuizen said the governor and his staff felt two out of four wasn’t bad.
“I think first of all, since he’s been in office, other than the flood response, the biggest thing the governor had to tackle was the state budget,” he said.
“He had to act boldly to attack that and did that boldly. He was able to balance that without raising taxes.”
So the passage of the balanced budget amendment is a victory, he said, and the “surprisingly strong” rejection of a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase under Initiated Measure 15 is another positive.
“He views that as a big victory for South Dakota,” Venhuizen said. “South Dakota balances its budget, and we don’t raise taxes to do it.”
Daugaard was also “very pleased” the cement plant proposal passed, he said.
The defeat of the governor’s education reform plan, which became Referred Law 16, should be paired with the rejection of the sales tax, Venhuizen said.
“We saw the governor come forward with his proposal, which was Referred Law 16, and the schools come forward with their plan, which was the tax increase,” he said. “And both of them went down to defeat.
“I think in part, it says that the voters of South Dakota are pretty happy with our school system and didn’t see either one as a necessity.”
RL 14, the creation of the special fund to boost business development, was a “long, complicated issue,” and Venhuizen said voters often reject ballot questions like that.
“I’m sure that was a factor as well,” Venhuizen said. “In fact, I’m sure of it.
“The governor is disappointed about that. He felt that was a good proposal.”
Venhuizen said efforts will be made during the 2013 session “to look at what our tools are for economic development.”
Simmons said he didn’t think the outcome of the ballot questions will have a great deal of impact on Daugaard.
“I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on that one way or the other as far as popularity of the governor goes,” he said.
“What it does tell me, as always, is people look at a particular issue in many ways.
“There could be a variety of reasons for that. Maybe the message wasn’t articulated very well.”
Simmons said while running as a Democrat in South Dakota has always been challenging, and will be in the future, political fortunes ebb and flow.
“You know what I learned a long time ago? You don’t count anybody out,” he said. “We’ve had some of the most recognizable Democrats in the nation come from this state, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had another. Don’t count them out.”
Hunhoff said his party fills an important role in the process and will continue to speak out on issues in the 2013 session, no matter what the numbers are when the gavel falls.
“Whether there’s two or 20 or 50, the Democrats are prepared to provide that,” he said.