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MERCER: Dissecting Daugaard's endorsements

PIERRE -- The post-election analysis of Republican legislative primaries this spring lumped many races into a mainstream vs. tea party battle. Some people are appalled that moderate Republicans lost on June 5, while others are appalled that conse...

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Bob Mercer

PIERRE -- The post-election analysis of Republican legislative primaries this spring lumped many races into a mainstream vs. tea party battle.

Some people are appalled that moderate Republicans lost on June 5, while others are appalled that conservative Republicans lost.

Yet the results of those legislative district battles, in the broad view, generally mirrored the statewide results of the five-way 2010 Republican primary election won by now-Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

His candidacy found the middle-right of the Republican spectrum. He showed he was sufficiently competent and had solid professional experience.

If there was any millstone around his neck as lieutenant governor, it might have been the endorsement of then-Gov. Mike Rounds.

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Daugaard found himself forced to defend against accusations, which were accurate enough, about the troubled situation facing state government's finances, at least partly due to overspending during the Rounds era.

Daugaard took the middle, raised more money than probably the others combined, and won with 50.4 percent of the votes.

Getting over the 50 percent majority mark was important from a governing perspective. Daugaard showed his backbone upon taking office when he called for 10 percent budget cuts in state government and he reduced salaries of upper-level people, including his own pay.

As South Dakota's economy has returned to more normal times in the past year, now state government is poised to show a 1 percent surplus when the fiscal year ends June 30.

In that respect a Daugaard endorsement should have been golden this spring. But other moves made by the Daugaard administration in the past 18 months haven't worked so well.

There's one piece of legislation, which would allow the state Board of Economic Development to give away millions of dollars annually in grants to businesses, that is on the November ballot for a statewide vote.

We'll also know within days if a second measure, the controversial package of education reforms and changes for public schools contained in HB 1234, is headed to the ballot for a referendum vote too.

That bill passed by a single vote in the House of Representatives.

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Those two ballot measures amount to a referendum on the first half of the Daugaard administration.

Against that background, the governor seems to have overplayed his hand when he jumped into a handful of Senate Republican primary campaigns and issued endorsements this spring.

His help didn't seem to help as much as those on his side hoped.

Just as Daugaard was found in the 2010 Republican primary for governor to be acceptably middle-right, the same theme came through in Republican primaries this June.

Voters in Lawrence County chose the more conservative candidate in county commissioner Bob Ewing of Spearfish against Sen. Tom Nelson of Lead, in a contest where abortion restrictions probably were a decisive underlying theme.

If Daugaard's endorsement of Nelson made a difference it was overshadowed by turnout, which was a mere 31.8 percent among Republicans in the county.

In a legislative district that has repeatedly elected Republicans and where Democrats have weak organization, the 622 people who preferred Ewing over Nelson made a political decision for thousands of people.

In the northeast there likewise seemed to be a lack of inspiration among Republicans who had a big decision to make.

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Again, the Daugaard endorsement didn't light a fire. The incumbent, Sen. Tim Begalka of Clear Lake, crushed the challenge by Rep. Val Rausch of Big Stone City, who clearly was part of the Republican leadership in Pierre as House speaker.

Turnout was exceptionally low in the rural precincts of Codington and Brookings counties, where Begalka beat Rausch by a combined 439 votes to 134.

In the core of District 4, Begalka defeated Rausch 349 to 32 in Deuel County, where turnout was 34.4 percent of Republicans. Rausch won Grant County 383 to 318. Turnout there was 31.5 percent.

The effects of Daugaard's endorsements of Sen. Bruce Rampelberg of Rapid City and Sen. Deb Peters of Hartford weren't clear.

Rambelberg won an impressive victory in a rematch against George Ferebee of Hill City. Peters squeaked past the challenge of anti-Obama and anti-government Rep. Lora Hubbel of Sioux Falls.

Daugaard's endorsement of former Rep. Mike Buckingham of Rapid City didn't turn out well.

Buckingham lost to Rep. Phil Jensen of Rapid City in the Senate Republican primary to succeed retiring Elizabeth Kraus, R-Rapid City, who has been a well-spoken, well-organized leader among social conservatives in the Legislature.

Jensen's politics fit the same broad stream of Howie and Hubbel.

Two lessons emerge from those five endorsements.

One: Governors might want to think twice about whether their Capitol capital matters in local decisions.

Two: Republican voters this June were looking for candidates who were legislative versions closest to Daugaard on the same core issues, such as abortion and government spending and the roles of government, which clearly mattered most to Republican primary voters in 2010 when they nominated Daugaard.

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