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Here's every NRA grade issued to South Dakota's political candidates

The Mitchell Republic is publishing the ratings given by the National Rifle Association to candidates running for office in South Dakota so residents can see how their representatives in Pierre and Washington have voted on gun legislation.

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In a Nov. 1, 2021 post on her personal Twitter account, Gov. Kristi Noem wrote: "Happy #WorldVeganDay to all the hunters who enjoy harvesting vegan pheasant, deer, and elk!" along with this photo. Many Twitter users responded that Noem was belittling vegans in the post.
Photo: Twitter
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PIERRE — A recent series of highly-publicized mass shootings across the United States has renewed calls from gun control advocates to toughen federal and state firearm regulations.

Members of Congress have once again begun talks in Washington to tighten gun laws, but state legislators wield considerable authority over firearm rules at a local level.

Known for relaxed gun laws, South Dakota boasts some of the strongest Second Amendment guarantees, continuing to further loosen gun regulations over recent years.

Each election, the National Rifle Association (NRA) issues letter grades to candidates who are running for political office. The rankings are based on the person's public statements about gun legislation, past voting record and an NRA questionnaire, according to Vote Smart, a nonpartisan website that compiles data about lawmakers in the U.S.

"A-plus" grades are awarded to politicians who have a voting record in alignment with “all critical NRA issues” as well as those who have “made a vigorous effort to promote and defend the Second Amendment. On the other end of the scale, an “F” grade represents politicians who the NRA calls the “true enemy of gun rights,” who actively leads anti-gun legislative efforts or sponsors anti-gun legislation.

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Ahead of Tuesday's primary election, the Mitchell Republic dug into the grades given by the NRA to South Dakota lawmakers and candidates so residents can see how their representatives in Pierre and Washington have voted on gun legislation.

Gov. Kristi Noem: A+

Kristi Noem, a politician since 2007, spent two terms in the South Dakota House of Representatives before successfully running for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. She served the state in Washington for eight years before returning to South Dakota and being elected governor in the 2018 election.

A longstanding gun advocate with an extensive voting and legislative history in favor of Second Amendment rights, Noem was given an A-plus grade and an NRA endorsement.

Arguably Noem’s most significant gun-freedom action was the very first piece of legislation she signed as Governor — an NRA-backed repeal and revision of provisions regarding permits to carry a concealed pistol. The passage of the constitutional carry bill permitted law-abiding citizens to conceal firearms without a permit, as previously required.

“More than 230 years ago, the Founding Fathers of our country penned the Constitution that has since laid the framework for centuries of policies. They so firmly believed in the importance of the freedom to bear arms that they enshrined it into the Constitution’s Second Amendment,” Noem said after signing the bill into law. “This constitutional carry legislation will further protect the Second Amendment rights of South Dakotans.”

While serving as a U.S. Representative, Noem co-sponsored multiple pieces of legislation expanding gun rights, including one that would have allowed concealed carry permits from one state to assume validity in certain other states.

According to VoteSmart, a nonpartisan website that compiles data about lawmakers in the U.S., Noem voted in favor of nine key pieces of federal gun-related legislation, including bills that would have prevented restrictions on firearm possession on college campuses, banned local jurisdictions from implementing firearm restrictions and authorized mentally incompetent veterans to buy firearms.

Noem’s primary challenger, Steve Haugaard, was graded with an A. The Sioux Falls resident has been a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives since 2015, and served as the speaker pro tempore for one term.

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Noem's campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding her grade.

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Mitchell resident and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., visits with people along North Main Street while taking part in the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo parade on Saturday, July 20, 2019.
Mitchell Republic file photo

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson: A+

Mitchell native Dusty Johnson has served in Washington since 2018, and his service in South Dakota’s government reaches back as far as 2005, when he served as a Public Utilities Commissioner until 2011. Between his departure from the PUC to his arrival on the national stage, Johnson spent nearly four years serving as chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

A “strong defender” of the Second Amendment with a record of voting against gun control bills, Johnson was given an A-plus grade and an NRA endorsement.

As South Dakota’s lone voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, Johnson has voted four separate times against various pieces of federal legislation that called for expanding background checks on some or all firearm sales, even those between private parties. In March 2021, Johnson voted against the Violence Against Women Reauthorizations Act, which, in part, would have restricted certain gun ownership.

“The Second Amendment is about more than hunting or sport — it’s about a fundamental right to protect oneself,” Johnson said in a statement shared with the Mitchell Republic. “I’ll continue to be a strong defender of the Second Amendment.”

Johnson does, however, acknowledge that the nation is experiencing a “longstanding problem with violence and mental health,” which led him — alongside Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash. — to introduce the SUPPORT for Mental Health Act in 2021, which intends to use remaining COVID-19 relief funds to address mental and behavioral health issues across the United States. That bill is still in the House.

Johnson’s primary challenger, Taffy Howard, received a grade of A. Howard, a Rapid City resident, currently serves District 33 in the South Dakota House of Representatives.

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Senator John Thune speaks at the Mitchell Rotary Club's meeting at Blarney's Sportsbar and Grill in Mitchell on Jan. 27, 2022.
Mitchell Republic file photo

U.S. Sen. John Thune: A+

A longtime congressman from South Dakota, U.S. Sen. John Thune has worked in Washington longer than some voters have been alive. First elected as a member of the U.S. House in 1997 — and currently running for his fourth term in the U.S. Senate — Thune has a proven track record of voting in favor of expanding gun rights.

As a U.S. Representative, Thune often voted in accordance with a Republican voting bloc to affirm Second Amendment rights, including voting against mandatory gun show background checks, voting against longer and for shorter mandatory waiting periods and even for deputizing pilots to allow the possession of firearms on airplanes.

During his tenure as a U.S. Senator, Thune voted in favor of protecting firearm manufacturers and allowing the carry of firearms in national parks while voting against the prohibition of assault weapon possession and the establishment of limits of firearm magazine capacity.

In 2021, Thune took to Twitter to announce his plans to vote against expansive firearm registries and gun owner databases, citing privacy concerns of law-abiding citizens who are “exercising their clear Second Amendment rights.”

Bruce Whalen, one of Thune’s primary challengers, received an AQ grade from the NRA — which indicates the candidate is given an A but based only upon their responses to a questionnaire. Thune’s other primary challenger, Mark Mowry, received a question mark, indicating he either refused to answer the questionnaire or has made contradictory statements.

Thune's campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding his grade.

Other grades from the NRA

In addition to candidates in the congressional and gubernatorial races, the NRA provided grades to candidates in certain races for statewide office. Not all candidates were given a grade by the NRA.

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The South Dakota House of Representatives during the 2022 legislative session.
Mitchell Republic file photo

S.D. House candidates and their rankings

District 2: David Kull, ?; Jake Schoenbeck, A*; Jeffrey Shawd, ?; John Sjaarda, A*.
District 3: Carl Perry, A; Richard Rylance, A*; Brandei Schaefbauer, A*; Kaleb Weis, A.
District 4: Adam Grimm, A*; Fred Deutsch, A; Stephanie Sauder, A*; Val Rausch, A*.
District 7: Roger DeGroot, ?; Matt Doyle, B; Mellissa Heermann, ?; Doug Post, A.
District 8: John Mills, A; Tim Reisch, A*; Lecia Summerer, ?.
District 9: Jesse Fonkert, C; Bethany Soye, A; Kenneth Teunissen, C.
District 11: Tyler Bonynge, ?; Brian Mulder, A*; Chris Karr, A; Roger Russell, A*; Kimberly Parke, ?; Margaret Kuipers, ?; Stephanie Marty, ?.
District 12: Amber Arlint, B; Cole Heisey, A*; Greg Jamison A; Kerry Loudenslager, A*; Gary Schuster, A*.
District 13: Penny BayBridge, A*; Richard Thomason, A; Sue Peterson, A+; Tony Venhuizen, A*.
District 14: Gina Schiferl, A*; Taylor Rehfeldt, A; Tyler Tordsen, A*.
District 16: Kevin Jensen, A+; Karla Lems, A*; Richard Vasgaar, A.
District 19: Jessica Bahmuller, A*; Michael Boyle, A*; Caleb Finck, A; Roger Hofer, ?; Drew Peterson, ?.
District 20: Jeff Bathke, A*; Lance Koth, A; Ben Krohmer, A*.
District 23: Brandon Black, A*; Greg Brooks, ?; Scott Moore, A*; James Wangsness, A.
District 24: Will Mortenson, A; Jim Sheehan, A*; Mary Weinheimer, A*; Mike Weisgram, B.
District 26A: Eric Emery, ?; Alexandra Frederick, ?; Joyce Glynn, ?; Marshal Tinant, ?.
District 28B: Gary Cammack, A+; Kirk Chaffee, A; Kathy Rice, ?.
District 30: Patrick Baumann, ?; Lisa Gennaro, A*; Gerold Herrick, ?; Dennis Krull, ?; Trish Ladner, A.
District 31: Mistie Caldwell, A*; Mary Fitzgerald, B; Scott Odenbach, A.
District 32: Becky Drury, B; Steve Duffy, ?; Jemie Giedd, B.
District 33: Dean Aurand, B; Phil Jensen, A; Curt Massie, A*; Janette McIntyre, ?.
District 34: Mike Derby, A; Jodie Frye, A*; Jess Olson, B.
District 35: Larry Larson, ?; Tina Mulally, A; Tony Randolph, A; Elizabeth Regalado, ?.

*: Indicates a candidate’s grade was based solely on their responses to an NRA-PVF Candidate Questionnaire and that the candidate does not have a voting record on Second Amendment issues.

?: Indicates that the candidate did not answer an NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or that a candidate has made contradictory statements or have taken positions that the NRA deems are inconsistent with the candidate's answers to the NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or previous record.

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The South Dakota Senate meets during the 2022 legislative session.
Mitchell Republic file photo

S.D. Senate candidates and their grades

District 1: Joe Donnell, A*; Michael Rohl, A.
District 2: Steve Kolbeck, A*; Spencer Wrightsman, A*.
District 3: Rachel Dix, A*; Al Novstrup, A+.
District 5: Colin Paulsen, A*; Lee Schoenbeck, B.
District 7: Julie Erickson, A*; Tim Reed, C.
District 8: Casey Crabtree, A-; Heather DeVries, A*.
District 9: Brent Hoffman, A*; Mark Willadsen, A.
District 16: Nancy Rasmussen, A; Jim Bolin, A.
District 23: Bryan Breitling, A-; Spencer Gosch, A.
District 24 Jim Melhaff, A*; Mary Duvall, B.
District 25: Kevin Crisp, A*; Leslie Heinemann, A; Lisa Rave, A*; Tom Pischke, A.
District 29: John Carley, A*; Dean Wink, B; Beka Zerbst, ?.
District 30: Julie Frye-Mueller, A; Tim Goodwin, A.
District 31: Randy Deibert, ?; Ron Moeller, A*.
District 33: David Johnson, A+; Janet Jensen, A*.

*: Indicates a candidate’s grade was based solely on their responses to an NRA-PVF Candidate Questionnaire and that the candidate does not have a voting record on Second Amendment issues.

?: Indicates that the candidate did not answer an NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or that a candidate has made contradictory statements or have taken positions that the NRA deems are inconsistent with the candidate's answers to the NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or previous record.

How did the NRA grade North Dakotan politicians?

Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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