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In Pennington County sweep, conservative faction vying to lead South Dakota’s GOP notches key win

The new County Central Committee, with ties to conservative groups including Citizens for Liberty and the Family Heritage Alliance, is hopeful it can energize South Dakota's second-largest county.

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Amy Wagner, who was elected chair of the Pennington County Republican Party, speaks prior to the election on the morning of Jan. 21 in Rapid City.
Courtesy Photo
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RAPID CITY, S.D. — In South Dakota’s second-largest county — the seat of political power in the western half of the state — the Republican Party is under new leadership.

At the Pennington County GOP elections held on Jan. 21 in Rapid City, the energized, right wing of the party swept their more moderate counterparts across the six elected positions in the County Central Committee — county chair and vice chair; county treasurer; county secretary; and state committeeman and committeewoman. Each position serves a two-year term.

While the split between the two factions in the party remains to be litigated throughout the legislative session and into the coming years, Rep. Chris Karr, a conservative legislator from Sioux Falls, explained that down-ballot changes such as these, especially in one of the state’s most populous counties, can lead to a ripple effect statewide.

“Whenever you elect individuals, there's that snowball or trickle effect, and it kind of goes up and down,” Karr said. “If we have really good conservative Republicans that we elect, then they're going to have a conservative influence in their community, but also on the legislators; hopefully, they're going to influence legislators to support those conservative Republican bills, issues and efforts.”

Although every contest was relatively close in terms of delegate count, all six candidates backed by Jeff Holbrook, the party’s outgoing chair, lost their races. Holbrook did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Ed Randazzo, who Holbrook backed in the secretary’s race, declined a request for comment.

In the race for party chair, Amy Wagner, who spent stints on the Family Heritage Alliance advisory council and as the state coordinator for the National Day of Prayer, beat Lauri Davis, the previous vice chair of the county, by a delegate tally of 44-33.

Rep. Tony Randolph, of Rapid City, the vice chairman of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, a small group of conservative lawmakers in Pierre often critical of some in Republican leadership, was elected Pennington County’s state committeeman, edging past Ben Treadwell in a 36-35 vote.

“One of the big things I have in my heart is helping educate people within the Republican Party of what the platform is, what the process is to run for elections, the process of what happens in Pierre, how bills get passed and things of that nature,” Randolph said.

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Rep. Tony Randolph, of Rapid City, listens to the State of the Judiciary address on Jan. 11. Randolph is the new state committeeman in Pennington County, one of six elected positions on the County Central Committee.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Conservatives argue moderates have strayed from GOP platform

The reference to the Republican Party’s platform is a fundamental part of the messaging activists across South Dakota are employing in their bid to pull the party back to its roots.

As Tom Brunner put it in an interview with Forum News Service on Jan. 10, a few days before the former legislator’s unsuccessful bid to chair the statewide party, “our state has moved to the left, we’re trying to bring it back.”

According to Wagner, every victorious candidate during Saturday’s election in Rapid City mentioned “adherence to the platform” as part of their pitch to the delegates in the room.

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Among the conservative wing of the party, the criticism of straying from the platform has also been levied algorithmically, using legislative scorecards from fiscally and socially conservative groups like the South Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity and Citizens for Liberty, among others, which rank legislators on whether they voted on the subjectively correct side of a bill.

The more moderate, or at least less vocal, Republicans that dominate legislative leadership have dismissed these critiques as distractions.

“We’ve got to get a year’s worth of work done in 40 days,” Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, said when asked about the criticism of moderate Republicans during a Jan. 19 press conference. “We just don’t have time to call people names, or put out some sort of scale from some non-transparent group.”

That charge of a failed adherence to the platform has renewed itself during the 2023 session amid the $200 million “workforce housing” bill, a Republican-led investment that conservatives in the party argue violates Section 2.4 of the platform: “economic activity thrives in an environment of limited government intrusion, and can be stifled by government overreach.”

Yet the housing debate also reveals the potential malleability that arguments using the wide-ranging party platform allow. In the Jan. 13 discussion over the housing infrastructure bill on the Senate floor, Crabtree, the prime sponsor of the proposal, remarked that the platform tenet directly prior to the protection of a free economy is Section 2.3: “the development of modern infrastructure to foster economic growth.”

Other notable electees in the Pennington County election include new county vice chair Mike Mueller, president of Citizens for Liberty and husband to conservative Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, as well as returning state committeewoman Janet Jensen, whose husband, Rep. Phil Jensen, notched the only 100% rating on the 2022 Citizens for Liberty legislative scorecard.

Moving forward, Wagner said her goal will be to harness the political energy among conservatives in the region toward electoral success. She says that starts with communication, team-building and education.

“When I was involved in sign waving and going door to door, I wasn't a committeeperson at all, but I did it for my friends. I did it for people I knew and respected,” she said. “And if we're going to be expected as committeepeople to help get candidates elected, we have to know them. We have to be able to sit in the same room with each other and be nice. Maybe that's where some of my experience as a mother of four children will come in.”

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MORE BY JASON HARWARD
“This is sensationalism at its finest, and it does not deserve to be heard in our state capitol,” Rep. Erin Healy, a Democrat and one of 10 votes against the bill in the 70-person chamber, said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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