PIERRE, S.D. — Voters will have little choice in many South Dakota Legislature races this year. It's the Republican or nobody.

Democrats conceded 18 spots to the Republican Party within the state House of Representatives; 17 races went uncontested by Democrats in the state Senate.

How do voters get more choices on the ballot? Both Republicans and Democrats are finding that the only way to challenge Republican incumbents is to focus not on national party values or cultural issues, but on what voters say they care about most.

As it stands now, the state's voter rolls are solidly Republican and the control of the state Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and is expected to stay that way.

But for challengers, there may be a way forward, especially in rural parts of the states, where voters don't always vote along party lines, said Michael Card, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of South Dakota.

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Card said that one can somewhat predict who is likely to win a district based on the district constituents’ party registration data. But not always.

“Sometimes it comes down to personality. People tend to think alike who live in similar areas, but in the more rural areas figuring out who is the conservative Republican and who is the conservative Democrat is kind of challenging,” Card said.

Embodying local voter concerns

One example happened in a rare primary battle in June between Republican candidates in District 23 that took down a party leader in the Legislature, House Majority Leader Lee Qualm of Platte.

Challenger Erin Tobin from Winner said she felt there were a lot of voters who wanted to have more of a voice and didn't feel like their views were represented by Qualm.

Erin Tobin of Winner won a seat in the South Dakota Senate representing District 21. Submitted photo.
Erin Tobin of Winner won a seat in the South Dakota Senate representing District 21. Submitted photo.

Tobin said many of the voters weren't on the same page as Qualm's anti-vaccination bill he sponsored during the 2020 legislative session, which would do away with vaccination mandates in the state's public school system.

Tobin said the most support she felt didn't necessarily come from a political party so much as it did from the voters in District 23.

"The most support I felt was from the local voters. They were behind me from the beginning," Tobin said.

Qualm took the loss graciously, telling Forum News Service on Thursday, Oct. 22, that he was inaccurately portrayed as anti-vaccination.

"I'm not anti-vaccination, unfortunately it got portrayed about that. I'm for freedom of choice and I just wanted people to make an informed decision," Qualm said.

Qualm added that he's glad he brought the bill forward and noted how he's received support from across the nation for going against "Big Pharma."

Lee Qualm
Lee Qualm

Dems regrouping, seeking candidates

After a year of regrouping and getting the state’s party financially in order, South Dakota Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Nikki Gronli said that left too little time to focus on getting more candidates to run for state legislative spots.

“Normally in 2019, toward that end of year we should've had our candidates lined up then. But with everything that was happening it didn’t get the attention that it needed,” Gronli said, referencing resignations and financial difficulties at the party last year.

The candidates the Democratic Party does have on the ballots this year are high-quality candidates, Gronli contested.

South Dakota Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Nikki Gronli. Submitted photo
South Dakota Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Nikki Gronli. Submitted photo

One of them is Michelle L. Hentschel, a financial analyst who is running for South Dakota House of Representatives in District 10 against Republican and Speaker of the House Steven Haugaard.

Hentschel said she’s noticed that over the last couple of years, some of the Republican legislators are pushing a national party agenda rather than representing the agenda of the voters in their districts.

“I see them especially taking on people in the transgender and LGBTQ community and I’d like to see that stop. I don’t think that South Dakotans would treat people that way, we are a welcoming people and we need all kinds of people to come here and work here and stay here,” Hentschel said.

Hentschel anticipates that if she wins the election on Nov. 3, she’ll have to fulfill the role as a negotiator, and work with Republicans to get things done. But always keeping voters' goals in mind.

“I believe the government is supposed to be by the people for the people and we should listen to what the people want and make that work,” she said.

Michelle Hentschel, of Sioux Falls, is vying for a spot in the South Dakota House of Representatives. Submitted photo.
Michelle Hentschel, of Sioux Falls, is vying for a spot in the South Dakota House of Representatives. Submitted photo.

A supermajority pays off

Next year, the Legislature will vote on redistricting, redrawing district boundaries for the next decade, Card, the USD professor, said.

Redistricting is a crucial way of redrawing the state's political map, and is a powerful way a party in charge carves lines through voters to ensure they maintain a majority. This puts Democrats at a distinct disadvantage, both in the redistricting process, and in ensuring their voting blocs aren't split up and kept as a minority of voters in Republican-heavy districts.

“That’s really what the challenge is — if they aren’t running enough candidates, they can’t have a majority," Card said. "I think the biggest issue the Democrats have going forward is they’ll be handicapped, so to speak, in getting legislative seats.”

And as Republicans maintain their large majority in both houses of the state Legislature, the larger agenda is likely to be unchanged, Card said. That agenda is fueled by model legislation created and promoted by organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Committee, which have "instant credibility" among conservative state legislators, Card said.

“When you have so many individuals of one particular persuasion, those interest groups that produce this model legislation greatly influence what legislation gets considered much less what gets passed," he said.

“In North Dakota and South Dakota, you see more Republican and conservative interest legislation and less of what I would call our political culture of moralistic — that we’re all in this together.”

Marvel covers South Dakota government and politics news. She can be followed on Twitter at @shannmarvel and reached at smarvel@forumcomm.com or 605-350-8355.