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Conservative group trying to reshape SD's GOP

RAPID CITY (AP) — A conservative grass-roots group in Rapid City that believes the state's Republican Party has drifted to the left has pledged to push its highly conservative messages in local and statewide races this year.

Twenty-two people associated with the group are challenging Republican incumbents who they perceive as too centrist, the Rapid City Journal reported on Sunday.

A former Republican state lawmaker and one of the founders of the organization, Bill Napoli, said the candidates are driven by the belief that the state's GOP has changed its stance on topics ranging from abortion to gay marriage.

"I never left the party," Napoli said. "The party left me."

The group named itself The Wingnuts, poking fun at members' own far-right views.

Napoli said those who attend the group's meetings in Rapid City are particularly upset at South Dakota's Republican lawmakers for not blocking the adoption of Common Core education standards, increasing license plate fees in 2011 and showing some hesitation before the passage of a bill in 2013 that allowed school districts to let teachers and some school administrators bear arms.

"That was a horrible struggle to get that done," Napoli said. "So we won, but that bill should have just flown through."

However, the newspaper reported, political scientists dispute the group's left-leaning claim and say the party is the most conservative it's been in a century.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said that what the group seems to be campaigning against is not so much a leftward drift, but the inability of the Legislature to expand certain policies, such as the accessibility of guns in South Dakota.

"That's a failure to do something," Schaff said, "as opposed to an attack on conservative values."

Among the candidates challenging incumbents are: Julie Frye-Mueller of Rapid City, who is taking on state Rep. Mike Verchio for District 30; Rip Ryness of Rapid City, who is going against state Sen. Jacqueline Sly for District 33; and George Ferebee of Hill City, who is contesting the Ward 1 seat of Pennington County Commissioner Ken Davis.