With enough caffeine in me early this AM, I started thinking about what the results from this years’ races tell me about the future, and what we as Republicans need to prepare for in 2020.
Before the election, people would ask me about the national races… which admittedly, I hardly pay any attention to. Because I’m concerned about my bread and butter – what’s happening right here in South Dakota. And it makes me think about the future.
With President Donald Trump in the White House, it seemed to have an effect that Republicans can’t ignore – motivating the opposition. Coupled with a bruising Republican primary that Democrats didn’t have to go through on a statewide level, it gave us a couple of tighter statewide races and a more active Democrat electorate than we’ve seen for a while.
Building on earlier messaging, some of the results coming out of the election seemed to be one of “shaking up the status quo.” And as Republicans in South Dakota enjoying one of the longest winning streaks we’ve enjoyed for a while, that puts the GOP in an unenviable position of defense when there are elements of the electorate that want to shake things up a bit.
That rumbling electoral unrest gave us a couple of tighter races than we might have expected at the top of the ticket.
Republicans had 2 races at the top – Governor, and AG – that seemed as if they could be contests. Mid-term election for a Republican President, motivated Democrats with a competent candidates who tried to assuage fears they weren’t conservative enough, a tough primary for the GOP while none for the Democrats… it set things up for a possible perfect storm.
With the Gubernatorial race, Kristi Noem had the unenviable position of having to rebuild her campaign resources from scratch after a bruising and tight primary election. After spending everything on a tough election, while Kristi had to go back to the well and attempt to tap new resources, her opponent was able to set his campaign on cruise control. At least until the Noem campaign got around to defining Sutton.
Sutton had generally been able to set the tone for himself in an unchallenged environment, because of the Republican intra-party battle depleting Noem’s campaign coffers and giving her wounds from that fight.
Sutton spent much of his time pretending to be as Republican as any Republican could be… except he was registered as a Democrat. He claimed to be pro-life and pro-gun, and anti-tax. In fact, he even got a Republican to change her party to be his running mate. And Sutton got away with that fantasy for quite some time. Until he didn’t.
Once the Noem campaign had resources rebuilt sufficiently to press a message, Sutton started to be defined and damned with his own words. Sutton attempted to go on the attack against Kristi, but it was the same message that people had heard in the primary against her, and by this point, was not breaking new ground.
The Sutton campaign, while it offered good advertising and carpet bombed the air waves, the cracks became evident as they fell woefully short in their ground game. There seemingly wasn’t one, and the Democrat party was no help.
Where they had been able to deliver votes in elections for Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle in the past, Dems’ failure to have an effective ground game seems to have doomed them. They just didn’t have one. During a period of time when the National Dem party was sending State Dems money to build voter numbers,,, they actually lost voters.
The South Dakota Republican party pushed slate cards and messaging for the entire ticket on multiple occasions, at the same time the state Democrat party acted like the appendix of South Dakota politics. It was a vestigial organ that did little except flare up such as when it couldn’t get their convention right. At some point in history, the South Dakota Democrat Party may have served a function, but this election it could have been removed to little effect.
As a whole, Republicans were able to effectively coordinate resources and messaging. When volunteers were calling voters, they weren’t speaking with individual messages for one candidate or another – they were calling with messages for Dusty Johnson, Kristi Noem, and Jason Ravnsborg. And it showed.
With the Noem campaign driving a punishing message against Sutton, effectively defining him, and the GOP firing on all cylinders, the campaign was able to do in final weeks what had seemed a little elusive since the primary – to bring enough of the GOP voters home. In fact, one might argue that was the turning point.
Kristi Noem spoke Republican’s language of conservative government, and while there might be people still a little sore about the primary, they were figuring out that Sutton was not as much of a Republican as they thought. And casting a ballot for someone who admired the policies of Bernie Sanders was not an option.
In a tighter race than we’ve seen for a while, Republicans faced and successfully battled the perfect storm and came out on top, electing Kristi Noem as our next Governor.
And the rest is history.
The Attorney General’s race was not quite as close as the Governor’s contest, but it presented challenges of its own.
Democrats offered their best candidate in decades in the Attorney General’s race in Randy Seiler. Randy was fairly well liked around State Government, which gave him credibility among top level Republicans in his face-off against Jason Ravnsborg. In fact, Randy made a point to tout that there were top level Republicans who liked him.
Ravnsborg had run in the 2014 US Senate Primary, and had been a very visible fixture at every SDGOP event for dozens of months. He’d spoken to groups about ballot measures and knew everyone who went to a GOP event. In the Convention, he handily managed to out maneuver and plain outwork his Republican convention opponents.
Ravnsborg, a private practice attorney and Lt. Col in the Military, at times had been viciously attacked by some Republicans who threw stones at his criminal law experience, which carried over to the fall campaign with Seiler echoing the same attacks.
What Seiler didn’t count on were two things – that Ravnsborg is one of the most indefatigable campaigners in modern state history, and far sharper politically than he’d prepared for in their televised debate, where Ravnsborg handed Seiler his hat.
Ravnsborg also quickly picked up on ill-advised statements of Seiler’s in that same SDPB debate and in an earlier blog interview to give him enough ammo for a crushing attack ad that hit Seiler hard, blunting any criticism that Seiler could come up with. It was enough to give Ravnsborg a 10-point margin of victory, a landslide in most books.
The rest of the races including Congress and the other constitutional offices were typical South Dakota Republican fare, with 24 point and higher margins of victory.
But there were some shifts in legislative contests that bear some attention… which I’ll talk about in part 2.