(Editor’s Note – Presenting another longform column that ran from this last week in it’s entirety from the SDWC’s sister website South Dakota Political News – PP)
SDGOP Generation Next – The shape of GOP leadership as we move towards 2030
As we prepare for yet another round of redistricting, another gubernatorial election, and another US Senate election, it’s a good.. or maybe an inevitable indication that the environment we see today will not always be what we see. Time always marches on, and a new group of leaders will be there talking the place of the old.
For example, In 2011, our constitutional officers were..
Dennis Daugaard, Governor
Matt Michels, Lieutenant Governor
Jason M. Gant, Secretary of State
Marty Jackley, Attorney General
Steve Barnett, Auditor
Richard Sattgast, Treasurer
Jarrod Johnson, Commissioner of School and Public Lands
Gary Hanson, Chris Nelson, & Kristi Fiegen, Public Utilities Commission
Well.. 5 of the 10 were different than we now have a decade later. And 20 years ago, the slate was completely dissimilar.
Part of what I spend a lot of time doing is trying to predict, or to game out what the future of the political landscape is going to look like. And looking down the line, there seems to be some population and political trends that help us in making an educated guess on who our state’s future leaders might be.
20 years ago, we were more geographically diverse in who served in elected office. Now, we seem to be coalescing to certain areas. I think that trend will continue will more concentration to our population centers as we cruise towards the next decade.
While it had already been broken at the Federal level, Kristi Noem shattered the glass ceiling for who we consider for leadership. And looking at the current makeup of the legislature, many of the more dynamic potential candidates moving up through the ranks look a lot different than they did a decade ago.
Absent a drastic change in political landscape, I think we’re going to remain fairly red.. but we may start to see a bit more purple shading in Sioux Falls. And I’ll just stop there, as this post will get far too long and too far afield if I don’t. As opposed to talking about 2030’s environment – let’s talk about who to watch.
With that, let’s consider and predict what the SDGOP’s “Generation Next” – the future class of elected leaders – is going to look like.
The only person who arguably war games the political environment out as much as a political blogger and will be at the top tiers of elected office is our current Congressman Dusty Johnson.
Except by 2030, he’s no longer going to be Congressman. Expect that Dusty will be in the middle of a term as Governor or US Senator. As hard as it is to imagine, by 2030, Dusty will be the GOP’s future elder statesman.
Dusty is one of the hardest workers in politics and has an indefatigable ground game. If he’s not there in person, he will have people at parades, events, fairs, dinners, etcetera. He can raise money, is popular without being polarizing, and is viewed as intelligent and competent.
If you want to continue to win elections in this state, you have to appeal to a broad base, and Dusty knows how to do it.
The State Senate is approaching what we can anticipate as an inevitable change of leadership with Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack hitting term limits in that chamber. While we won’t see a drastic change of the people in the Senate, with those that will go, and the new people coming in, changes are coming which would favor Crabtree moving from Majority whip into a higher position among his peers. If not this next term of office, a future one will be coming which will likely place him in Senate leadership.
Crabtree also has the advantage of coming from what I loosely term as the I-29 corridor, the Eastern-most portion of the state with the majority of the population, the majority of the media, and the majority of the backing to achieve statewide elected office.
As the Director of Economic Development for Heartland Consumers Power District, his name is in front of and he touches a tremendous number of people in his day job and rubs shoulders with our state’s captains of industry. It’s a strong and enviable position if he might contemplate running for statewide office.
Taylor Rehfeldt is part of a new class of candidates that came onto the horizon this election from the health care industry. They were particularly remarkable in that they were exceptionally strong & savvy ground campaigners, and they were reasonably able to raise money. In her first election cycle, between the primary and the general election Rehfeldt was able to bring in over $56,000.. which is pretty darned good for a first time candidate.
Add to that the fact that Rehfeldt is from Sioux Falls. Yes, in days gone by you might consider that a liability, but no more.
Consider the fact that Sioux Falls is projected to have a population of around 280,000 in 2040. In 2030 it’s not unreasonable to consider the state’s largest city will be 220,000 – 250,000 by that point; possibly 1/5 to 1/4 of the state’s entire population in one metro area.
Technically, it’s Dr. Taylor Rehfeldt, as she holds masters and doctoral degrees. Dr. Rehfeldt has been recognized in her professional community as well as in the Sioux Falls professional community for her accomplishments. She’s on the fast track for future opportunities as a statewide leader to watch.
Sydney Davis is another health care professional who came on to the scene last year who despite no prior experience in politics managed to run an aggressive ground game and was the top vote recipient by just under 500 votes in a 4-way legislative contest in southeast South Dakota.
Davis holds a nursing degree from SDSU, and a master’s degree from Mt. Marty, and is another candidate who benefits from having her home where the voters are, in the I-29 corridor. But she also brings a particular appeal besides living in the right place.
Because Davis also boasts strong attachments to the agriculture industry. Davis grew up as a 4-H and FFA kid and is a 4th generation cattle producer, bonafides that can only help her appeal to a broad base of South Dakotans.
With redistricting, anticipate Davis will likely move up to the State Senate in short order, with opportunities for statewide office to follow.
State Senator Erin Tobin rounds out the trio of healthcare professionals who were swept into office in 2020, and she’s the kind of candidate that opponents should fear. She taught that lesson to the outgoing House Majority Leader in the last election when she took him out more than 60-40% and utterly destroyed her general election opponent nearly 80-20%.
It goes without saying that she’s a tremendous campaigner in a legislative district which stretched far and wide.
Erin is a conservative pro-life Republican who sweeps away preconceived notions of a ranch wife/ag producer, adding medical professional, university instructor and small business owner to her resume. Regularly working in health care from South Central South Dakota as far east as Yankton, and acting as an instructor with USD, Erin touches a very broad base across the state.
Tobin literally follows in the footsteps of a trail blazed by Governor Kristi Noem, and it would not be unexpected at all to see her throwing her name in the ring for Congress or other statewide office if the timing was right.
Until he was mayor, he had never held elective office, or served on the Sioux Falls City Council. But he was (and is) honest, forthright, social media savvy and genuine. And he can raise money (235k+) for a mayoral race as expensive as many statewide races. Paul TenHaken is also the best-known politician in the state who hasn’t ran for statewide office yet.
Yet. Because I suspect his time will come. And it will come soon. In his previous electoral effort, TenHaken emerged from a field of six candidates in an initial race, and swamped his opponent in the runoff election on a vote of 62.7 – 37.3% Hardly a day goes by without being mentioned in the state’s largest media market, and generally he’s been able to avoid controversy, and maintain a strong popularity as forward thinking and business oriented.
His only fault might be that he’s too nice, even to fairly cut-throat opponents. But, in South Dakota we don’t punish civility. In fact, we tend to elect it as we see our better angels. Unless he chooses to go back to business – a successful one at that – Paul may eventually end up as one of our US Senators.
Besides the I29 corridor, the only other place successful statewide candidates seem to hail from is the Pierre/Ft. Pierre area. And Will has the potential, political savvy and experience to translate that into a run for office.
Will Mortenson has family roots in Central South Dakota’s ranching community. There are not many around Pierre who have not heard of the Mortenson Ranch which goes back generations as a working cattle operation along and near the Cheyenne River in Stanley and Ziebach Counties.
He worked in the Governor’s office as a policy analyst before attending the University of Virginia School of Law where he received his J.D. All during this time and since, Mortenson has been a close confidant and one of Congressman Dusty Rounds primary supporters. To put it mildly, he knows what he’s doing in politics.
Mortenson’s ties are deep in the Republican party, and he has the know how and connections to continue an upward trajectory among his peers in the SDGOP and to translate that into higher office.
Maybe Lee Schoenbeck… If we can talk him into it.
If I could talk him into it, I’d love to see current Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck running for Governor in 2026. But that’s assuming Lee feels like a go for a Gubernatorial level of political nonsense at that point in time.
This last election, Schoenbeck’s political calculus was dead on, and he was able to make things happen. Not to mention personal connections at the highest levels of industry in the state, and an almost unmatched ability to raise money.
Schoenbeck was literally at the point of pulling the trigger several years ago against Lt. Governor Daugaard, but at that time, Lee’s chief fundraiser became unavailable. At the time, Lee noted that he could either raise money or run for office, but not do both jobs at the same time and have a life. Which is an indication that he’s one of the state’s best campaign minds – because he understands what it takes to compete at that level.
Will he be up for it in 2026? If so, I’m in.
What about Kristi Noem?
Governor Noem has 4 years on her next term of office.. and she’s being talked about for the highest office in the land in the middle of it. I have the suspicion that by 2030, Governor Noem will still be part of a national level of politics.
So, absent a very outside chance she’s in the US Senate, I’d watch for her to be in the executive branch of the federal Government in one way or another.
The funny things about politics are that they change on a dime. People come, people go, and the unpredictable happens. Job opportunities come up. Unforeseen events come up. People do things that affect them negatively.
If there is anything predictable, is that the future is unpredictable. But looking at it through the lens of 2021, we can make a few guesses. And we’ll see how the dice land when things are done rolling.
And that’s what my crystal ball sees for the year 2030.