SD Democrats go with new, younger leadership in hopes of righting party's ship

“Not all farmers are Trump Republicans. But there are many in Turner County that I know that have fallen off because they think the Democratic Party has left them,” the party's new vice chair said.

Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, the new chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party, speaks during the party's State Central Committee meeting on Feb. 25, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

OACOMA, S.D. — The South Dakota Democratic Party is under new, younger leadership, with a wide margin of delegates opting for Jennifer Slaight-Hansen as the new party chair.

At the Feb. 25 meeting of the party’s State Central Committee, delegates descended on the Arrowwood Resort in Oacoma for the selection of the party’s executive board and regional directors. The chosen candidates will assume their roles in May.

Including those listening in and contributing over Zoom, around 100 people attended the meeting.

Though the party has been sidelined to just 10% of the South Dakota Legislature and no statewide officers, the beginning portion of the meeting was a reminder of a time when the Democratic Party in the state consistently competed for control of these positions

In his opening address to attendees, outgoing Chair Randy Seiler honored the life of James Abourezk, who spent a term representing South Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1970 to 1972 before subsequently serving a term in the U.S. Senate.


Abourezk, the first Arab-American to serve in the Senate, died on Feb. 24 at the age of 92.

Jim Abourezk
James Abourezk, who in the 1970s served one term each in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, died on Feb. 24. He was 92.
Mitchell Republic file photo

A native of Wood, a small town northeast of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Abourezk championed Native American causes while in Congress, including introducing and helping pass the Indian Child Welfare Act near the end of his Senate term.

“When we think about the history of the South Dakota Democratic Party, and individuals that have had a significant and substantial impact on policies, not just in South Dakota but across this country, his commitment, his involvement and his dedication to justice and equality, and treating people all across this country with respect and dignity, comes to mind,” Seiler said.

In Slaight-Hansen's nominating speech, she painted a markedly more positive picture of the party’s outlook than her opponent, John Cunningham, who has a background in private-sector management.

Speaking next to a chart showing the rapidly increasing advantage for Republicans in terms of registered voters in the state, Cunningham was heavily critical of the party’s leadership over the past 15 years.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars and what have we accomplished? We have accomplished sinking into the toilet. We need to get out of that,” said Cunningham, who made an unsuccessful attempt at state treasurer during the 2022 election. “And we need a plan, an organization and a coordinated effort to make that happen.”

John Cunningham, who earned less than 10% of the weighted delegate vote in his bid for party chair on Feb. 25, 2023, speaks next to a chart showing the demise of the Democratic Party's voter registration in the state.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Currently serving as party vice chair, Slaight-Hansen spent a decade on the Aberdeen City Council and worked both on the campaign and in the office of U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the last federal officeholder for the party.

While Slaight-Hansen said she understands the gravity of the party’s voter and dollar deficit, she described the way forward as “baby steps,” starting with things like filling delegate slots and engaging young voters.


Her vision for the party partially includes making it synonymous with successful, single-issue ballot measures that align with the party’s values. In the 2022 election, the Medicaid expansion amendment ran twenty points ahead of the party’s best statewide candidates.

“We know that our ideas and policies work. When people go to the ballot box, our initiated measures and our constitutional changes pass,” she said. “So we need to just simply let people know that that's us. Maybe we need to scream that a little bit louder from the rooftops.”

In the race for vice chair, Shane Merrill, a farmer from Parker, prevailed over Craig Brown.

While Brown in his speech was critical of Republicans and promised a strategy focused on social media and fundraising, Merrill used his speech to encourage better outreach to rural Democrats, disinterested voters and more moderate Republicans.

“Not all farmers are Trump Republicans. But there are many in Turner County that I know that have fallen off because they think the Democratic Party has left them,” Merrill said. “Just offer that helping hand back and say, ‘We want you, we’re here for rural issues, and let’s work together.’”

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“When we first moved here, people probably figured we were a little different," Rudy Borntreger, the bishop in the small community near Tripp, said. "And I guess we are a little different."

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

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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