Randy Seiler for Attorney General

Home » South Dakota Democrats have national momentum and candidates, but not voters

Jonathan Ellis, jonellis@argusleader.com

They also have arguably the most experienced candidate in the race for state attorney general. Randy Seiler hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he has filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office. Seiler, a career prosecutor, retired as U.S. attorney on Dec. 31, a post that he won with bi-partisan U.S. Senate approval.

This year’s election marks a sobering data point for South Dakota Democrats: They haven’t won a statewide election in a decade.

In 2008, Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won comfortable re-elections amid a national tide that swept Barack Obama into the presidency. From that point on, it’s been a dumpster fire for state Democrats. Herseth Sandlin lost two years later, the party failed to run a candidate against Sen. John Thune in 2010, and, in 2014, Johnson retired rather than attempt a bid for a historic fourth term, leaving the shelves bare of statewide Democratic officeholders for the first time in two generations.

And now, growing larger on the horizon, is the 2018 election. The 10-year mark.

Nationally, Democrats are feeling good about their chances this year. They’re in a fighting mood. As I write, they’re gleefully preparing to shut down the federal government. Many observers say the stars are aligning for a “wave election” in which they take control of the House and Senate.

In 2009, the year before the last wave election that saw Republicans take control of the House, Republicans won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017, those races were won by Democrats.

We won’t count last month’s special election in Alabama, where Democrats picked up a Senate seat. The GOP candidate was a howler, one of the worst candidates in the history of Democracy. Democrats are making too much of that victory.

Regardless, Democrats have momentum. But, is it enough momentum for them to succeed in South Dakota?

Historically, Democrats have done well in South Dakota when Republicans control the White House and the agriculture economy is weak. Going into this year’s election, they can check those two boxes. President Trump is considered a buffoon by many in his own party. Meanwhile, the agriculture economy is tepid, hampered by low corn and soybean prices.

They are positioning themselves with solid candidates. Their candidate for governor, state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke, is popular. I’ve heard conservative Republicans speak warmly about him because he comes across as amiable and genuine.

In Tim Bjorkman, they have a former circuit court judge running for an open House seat. There hasn’t been an open House seat in South Dakota in nearly 15 years, and the last time it was open, Democrats won. Bjorkman’s platform includes conventional Democratic issues on health care and taxes, but he also supports a constitutional amendment for term limits, a position that could earn him points among voters who view Congress as Misfit Island.

They also have arguably the most experienced candidate in the race for state attorney general. Randy Seiler hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he has filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office. Seiler, a career prosecutor, retired as U.S. attorney on Dec. 31, a post that he won with bi-partisan U.S. Senate approval.

Those are the positives for Democrats: A national mood that appears to be moving in their direction; historical precedent; good candidates.

But there are also negatives for state Democrats. One of them might pose a bridge too far.

The latest voter registration numbers released this month are a grim portent for Democrats in this year’s election. There is no way to spin it otherwise. Despite an unpopular Republican administration, the number of registered Democrats in South Dakota continues to decline.

There are now fewer than 160,000 registered Democrats in the state – a deficit of roughly 85,000 voters to the Republican Party. To put that into historical perspective, in 2008, Democrats were 37,000 voters behind. In 10 years, the gulf between the two parties more than doubled. And the decline hasn’t abated since Trump won. They’ve lost roughly 10,000 voters since then.

In fact, there hasn’t been this few registered Democrats since 1972. Then, when the state had a population of about 200,000 fewer people, Democrats made up 40.5 percent of all registered voters. Today, they make up just 30 percent.

This is an alarming trend for the Democratic Party in South Dakota, one that should be setting off alarm bells for the party’s leaders.

Maybe the national observers are correct: A Democratic wave could be in the offing. But unless the state party can find a way to start registering more voters, it’s a wave that South Dakota Democrats will miss.

Reach Jonathan Ellis at 605-575-3629 or jonellis@argusleader.com. On Twitter: @ArgusJellis

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