In 1990, South Dakota Democrats had focused on state legislative races in a manner which the South Dakota GOP was not prepared for at the time. Using postcards to target races, they hit many Republican incumbents hard with negative postcards at a time when they hadn’t been seen at that level.
While Republicans had a relatively free ride in the Gubernatorial contest with Bob Samuelson losing to George Mickelson 41 to 59%, Congressman Tim Johnson destroyed Don Frankenfeld, winning 68 to 32%.
That midterm election was a time of upheaval, when voters’ allegiances could be shifted.That started a sharp decline in legislative numbers for Republicans which culminated in 1992 when the GOP lost the State Senate, and for the first time in nearly 2 decades they found themselves relegated to the minority.
When faced with a nearly equal opportunity – a midterm election with a Republican in the White House, plus open seats in the Gubernatorial and Congressional contests, how did Democrats respond to the opportunity to move legislative seats in their direction?
They didn’t. Once recruited, the Democrat Party seemingly abandoned legislative races. The Democrat party was fully staffed, but it’s unclear what they actually did. One employee was running for statewide office themselves and received a donation from the Democrat Party for that effort, despite already being paid a salary. In a year which should have been a bread and roses opportunity for Democrats to slice numbers off of the SDGOP’s commanding legislative totals, the Democrat Party sat on their hands.
For Republican legislative fortunes, don’t consider this election an easy one for the GOP. Maintaining their numbers in this unstable mid-term environment took hard work.
The GOP rose to the challenge, but is also brought to light some areas that Republicans need to watch in the 2020 election if they wish to keep a legislative supermajority in place.
What did Republicans learn from the legislative races this election?
Good candidates matter. Since getting elected, Julie Bartling has always been able to move between legislative chambers at whim and has been a rare Democrat whom the GOP had given a berth to. Pro-life, and fairly popular in her District, no one wanted to tangle with her. But this year, the GOP had Rocky Blare.
Rocky was able to overturn a race that most Republicans had viewed as nigh-impossible, and not worth the attempt. You also had Tamara St. John, who won a District 1 House seat for the GOP for the first time in over a decade or more.
Quality candidates who are engaged in the process win.
Hard working candidates matter. It isn’t just enough to “be known.” Candidates have to get out and do the work.
Scyller Borglum who won in District 32 was a great example of this. Running for the legislature was something this doctoral candidate (at the time) always wanted to do, and she found herself with the opportunity. And she put 100% into it. She went out and worked. She didn’t take anything for granted. She did the door to door. She did the fundraising. She did all the things that some who run for office don’t exactly find fun. But she did what needed to be done to win the race.
And there are many other examples, such as Caleb Finck in District 21, Rebecca Reimer in Chamberlain, Doug Post in Brookings, and the list goes on and on. I hate to point out examples for fear of slighting anyone, because there were so many who got out and put in the work.
Early voting matters. One of the things that the GOP did exceptionally well this election was a push in early voting. The State Republican Party drove a message out to their people through distributing tens of thousands of pieces of literature across the state, and reinforced the need for early voting throughout all of their messaging.
At the time when early voting was upon us, the party targeted top areas and blasted them with more early voting messaging. After that they continued to expand efforts across the state at a time when Democrats did nothing.
Future success isn’t just about basic campaign techniques. It’s also about avoiding pitfalls, and to keep an eye on how we can improve.
What does the GOP need to watch for?
Sioux Falls. With a higher concentration of moderates, the Sioux Falls area seems to be getting to be more like larger cities in voting behaviors. Statewide in the House, the GOP picked up 4 seats it didn’t have. But, the GOP exchanged them for five seats that it lost to Democrat candidates on election night.
Three of the seats the GOP lost were in the Sioux Falls area.
This could simply be related to the mid-term election, but historically, it has been an area where Democrats have been able to make inroads. As South Dakota has shifted to be redder and redder, Sioux Falls hasn’t necessarily gone that way.
It bears watching and will demand that the party recruit good and hard-working candidates to restore those seats to Republican leadership. And it might mean that more resources need to be shifted by the party as a whole to keep pace with the population.
Counties need to tend to business. I can’t remember a time when even in the worst of years that Hughes County has gone as blue as it has.
Sure, Dems have had a rare seat or two in the Pierre centered legislative district in the last 40 years. But for it to go blue in not just one, but two top ticket races in a time when the GOP has a 100,000 vote advantage across the state is unheard of. Additionally, there were other traditionally strong Republican areas such as Pennington County that required “triage” in the final month of the campaign (for lack of a better word) to get the troops marching in one direction.
You might refer to it as “mission creep,” defined as a project or mission that goes beyond its original goals, often after initial successes. County GOP Organizations need to remind themselves what they’re there for. They aren’t social clubs, or ideological discussion groups. They originally organized for the purpose of getting Republicans elected. Period.
As we move into 2020, we need to remember that.
Stay tuned for part 3