Bill to root out 'backroom politics' in GOP convention sneaks out of South Dakota Senate
“I stepped up and asked to lead my party to better places. To find things we can unite around. This bill is not one of those things," GOP Chair John Wiik, a senator from Big Stone City, said.
PIERRE, S.D. — A proposal to make changes to the role of convention-goers in nominating party candidates, vigorously opposed in some corners of the South Dakota Republican Party, squeezed out of the Senate in an 18-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate.
There is still hope among Republican leadership that a path forward for the party’s convention can emerge over the next two weeks with the help of Sen. John Wiik, of Big Stone City, the party’s chair.
If no deal is reached within the party on either a new framework or a set of amendments, the House will take up the legislation in the session’s final few weeks.
If passed into law, Senate Bill 40 would move the ability to choose constitutional candidates — currently the role of a few hundred precinct and county-level delegates — to a primary of all eligible voters.
The lone exception to this would be the selection of the candidate for lieutenant governor by the governor, a fix to prevent the potential for an unfriendly pairing in the executive branch’s top two offices.
“I believe that our legislative predecessors created and implemented the process of nominating conventions to ensure that the political parties did not lose touch with the very people that entrusted them with power to begin with,” Sen. Tom Pischke, of Dell Rapids, said in opposition to the change.
The group being defended by Pischke, and the one with the most to lose were the voting process to change, is the precinct committeemen and committeewomen, hyper-local elected officials tasked with helping candidates and county parties organize individual neighborhoods, mainly during election season.
Several speakers in favor of the change, including Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, and Sen. David Johnson, of Rapid City, the bill’s prime sponsor, criticized these precinct delegates as out of step with most Republican voters and often underwhelming in their actual contributions to grassroots organizing.
“I'm a registered Republican and I’ve voted in every single election. I have never, ever been contacted by a precinct committeeman or a precinct committeewoman,” Johnson said.
Johnson further critiqued the framing of precinct delegates as the “true grassroots” by those in favor of keeping the current convention rules.
“Grassroots is your neighbor,” Johnson said. “Your mechanic, your mother, your cousin, your mailman citizens, South Dakota, that is grassroots.”
Taking the nomination process from a few hundred delegates to tens of thousands of voters, in the Republican primary’s case, was about “enfranchisement,” he and other supporters of the change argued.
Sen. John Wiik, of Big Stone City, who is one month into his tenure as chair of the South Dakota Republican Party, opposed the bill for its potential to turn every race for constitutional office into one favoring big-money, urban voters and candidates.
A majority of the party’s state central committee, made up of delegations from nearly every county in the state, directed Wiik to oppose the change at their meeting last month.
“This bill, if it passes the way it is, will encourage our candidates to spend more time and money in our major markets and larger cities,” Wiik said. “It will pull their time away from the rural areas where some of the delegates live.”
Critics on the party’s right flank say the change is only being floated due to the results of the last convention, which saw several scares for establishment candidates and the triumph of Monae Johnson over former Secretary of State Steve Barnett.
“With hours of relentless campaigning and hard work, she defied the odds to win the GOP nomination,” Pischke said, comparing Johnson’s shoe-leather campaign with the big-dollar realities of competitive gubernatorial primaries on the Republican side. “I think it should be a great concern to all of us that we're on the verge of abandoning an open and transparent nomination process for our constitutional officers.”
With fundamentally different framings of the current process — Pischke’s “open and transparent” as opposed to Rapid City Sen. Michael Diedrich’s characterization of “backroom politics” — it appears no one solution will satisfy all sides.
“I stepped up and asked to lead my party to better places,” Wiik said. “To find things we can unite around. This bill is not one of those things.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.