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SD's political party leaders say it's their job to be highly partisan

Ben Nesselhuf, chairman and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, left, and Tony Post, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, answer questions on partisanship in South Dakota politics at the McGovern Conference Monday morning on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus in Mitchell. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Tony Post and Ben Nesselhuf spend most of their time in combat with each other.

That doesn't mean they can't get along and have a reasonable, calm discussion on politics, although they said it's their job to be highly partisan.

Post, the executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, and Nesselhuf, chairman and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, spoke during the annual McGovern Conference on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus.

Nesselhuf said it's interesting to be asked to discuss bipartisanship when their role is to be "crass political operatives."

"We are possibly the two most partisan people in the state," he said.

Nesselhuf, a Rapid City native who now lives in Vermillion, served four terms in the Legislature. He ran for secretary of state in 2010, and, after losing that race, took the reins of the state party.

Post, a Minnesota native, has been involved with politics since he was a boy. He came to South Dakota in June 2011 to run the state GOP.

Nesselhuf said he worked with members of both parties as a legislator, but is now a "complete and utter partisan."

"My Democrat nominees are my 'peeps,' and that's who I work for," Nesselhuf said. "For the good of my state, I am going to work hard to make sure they are elected."

Post said he gets out of bed in the morning with a drive to elect Republicans to office, "which will make the state better."

DWU professor David Mitchell, the chairman of the Davison County Democratic form of communication can escalate quickly, he said, and he learned a lesson this year.

Nesselhuf said there is greater partisan animosity in Washington, D.C., than here, and the current process is designed to encourage increased polarization.

"You have to appeal to your radical right or radical left base to get the nomination," Nesselhuf said.

He said he looks to California as a state that is trying to solve this dilemma by carving out new districts and changing how the election process works.

In that state, a bipartisan redistricting commission aims to draw fair district lines to give both parties a chance in elections.

He also likes the so-called "jungle primary," which takes the top two vote-getters out of a primary and puts them in the general election, regardless of their party identification. campaign contributions from outside groups.

Dusty Johnson, who serves as Gov. Daugaard's chief of staff, asked if party officials hold back at times.

"Is there any humanity to their deep, dark souls?" he asked, which drew laughter.

Nesselhuf pointed to the state Democratic Party's decision to send out a flood of direct mail this fall, which in one case accused a Republican legislator of voting for a bill that he had, in fact, opposed.

Nesselhuf said he called the Republican to apologize, and then held back on another piece of mail that would have attacked that GOP lawmaker.

"I've got an office full of mail if he wants to come by and see what we were going to send out," he said.

Post said he suffered "Lutheran guilt" after a tweet exchange with a reporter that he quickly regretted. Debates and squabbles on that instant Party, and a four-time failed candidate for the Legislature, bemoaned the "soundbite culture" in politics, but both Post and Nesselhuf said it wasn't their job to alter that.

"Our function as party members to adapt to the culture as it is rather than trying to change it," Nesselhuf said, referring to a "world of Twitter," where people don't have a great deal of interest.

"I wish it was different. I wish we could get into strong policy arguments," he said. "I think we would win more elections. ... We adapt to the world we live in."

Post agreed, saying his job was to turn out voters and win elections, not to engage in policy debates.

"Parties are not the right vehicle for this," he said. "Especially in a post-Citizens United world."

That was a reference to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow virtually unlimited