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A Republican elected in South Dakota Democratic territory, Tamara St. John surprised even herself

District 1 Rep.-elect Tamara St. John visits with customers at Pereboom’s Cafe in Webster on Election Day. Special to Forum News Service

ABERDEEN, S.D. - Tamara St. John’s election to the state House of Representatives is what some thought was an improbable accomplishment.

Even she doubted her chances.

The 52-year-old Republican from Sisseton was the top vote getter in a three-way race for two seats in District 1. She will head to Pierre in January, the first member of the GOP to serve the district since 2001.

Its boundaries have changed through the years, but District 1 now includes part of northern Brown County as well as Roberts, Marshall and Day counties — a traditionally Democratic area. According to data from the Legislative Research Council, Rep. Mike Jaspers of Eden was the last Republican legislator to represent the district when it included Codington, Day, Marshall and Roberts counties. He served from 1997-2000.

Among those excited about the election of St. John is Nancy Stewart, a member of the Marshall County Republicans who did her first bit of campaigning for GOP candidates this year.

“We were floored that she won,” Stewart said. “I’m excited to see what she does when she gets to Pierre.”

St. John is a registered member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and a mother of four, three of whom are adults. She’s a tribal historian, archivist and curator of collections.

Native Americans notched firsts this year in congressional races with the election of Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Debra Haaland, D-N.M., to the U.S. House of Representatives. They join a list of at least 90 women elected to the House, including two who are the first Muslim women.

Stewart said St. John's election has stirred Republicans in District 1.

“We haven’t had a Republican from this area in a long time,” Stewart said. “Nobody wants to run.”

Now, she said, there’s a sense that GOP candidates might have a chance in future elections.

In a recent phone interview, St. John admitted her candidacy was a long shot, as she was a lesser-known Republican candidate in one of South Dakota's few blue pockets.

"I knew it was going to take a lot of effort to get the Republican Party voters to know they have a candidate to vote for. That was going to be the toughest part," St. John said.

Election Day was like many others leading up to it. According to her campaign manager and son Tyler Tordsen, St. John spent the day shaking hands with voters and reminding them to cast ballots.

"We drove around all the small towns on Election Day," Tordsen said. "Some recognized her and said she was who they voted for."

Tordsen and St. John both said the decision of Sen. Jason Frerichs, a Democrat from Wilmot, not to seek re-election to the Legislature provided an opening. After his announcement, Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, decided to run for state Senate in District 1. That left St. John running against Democrats Steven McCleerey from Sisseton and Paul Dennert from Columbia. McCleerey finished second and will also serve a two-year term in the House.

"I told her she would do a great job," Tordsen said. "I've always known her to be sincere and caring."

Admittedly, Tordsen said, he's somewhat biased. But he said his mother is well-qualified for the job with her background and the people she knows.

"She's in the really unique role to be able to bridge people from all kinds of backgrounds," he said.

While there's a Native American population St. John will strive to represent, she and Tordsen both noted the diverse population in the region — from agricultural land and lake property owners to those who live and work in towns. But, St. John said, although diverse, the interests are also similar.

"I know we live in a time and political climate that's very divisive and very negative at times. Yet here we are. I could be talking to an elderly couple at the tribe and a couple from the farming community. The words of concern and the wishes and wants are all the same," she said. "To me, it brought to mind something. There isn't a lot of daylight between us at the end of the day. We're a lot more unified in our goals than we think."