To say that the South Dakota Democratic Party is in shambles right now would be a vast understatement.
A once-proud political coalition has been laid low by mismanagement, disorganization and general malaise in the face of Republican state superiority, with no leadership lifeline in sight.
The question now is how damaging this demise will be to South Dakota interests, which have always been best served by a multiple-party system with an open marketplace of ideas.
As it stands, one of America’s reddest states is a flashing siren for Democrats, whose emergency plan is uncertain as a critical election year awaits.
Matters were already grave before the recent news that state party chair Paula Hawks and executive director Stacey Burnette were stepping down from their roles.
Longtime treasurer Bill Nibbelink retired in August with the party in negative-cash mode and nearly $50,000 in debt, and the Federal Elections Commission soon found that the party had misstated its finances by millions of dollars during the 2015-16 election cycle.
Then came the closing of the state party’s offices in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, followed by the exodus of Hawks and Burnette, a former Stephanie Herseth Sandlin staffer who had taken the reins in early August.
Randy Seiler, a viable candidate for state attorney general last November, is serving as temporary party chair until new leaders can be elected in December.
Clearly, though, there is no quick fix for a party that has zero statewide office holders and a shortage of promising candidates looking ahead to 2020. Though the South Dakota Democratic Party has received some money from the national ranks, it will first need to clean its own house before being deemed worthy of further support.
That means grassroots outreach to the 156,000 registered Democrats in South Dakota, stressing core party stances such as expanded health care, education funding, addressing gun violence and protecting reproductive rights. About 130,000 independents are in the state, presumably looking for leadership beyond standard conservative platforms.
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That outreach extends to recruitment of competitive candidates, not just for statewide office but for a legislative body in which the GOP holds a 30-5 advantage in the Senate and 59-11 edge in the House, effectively voiding the notion of checks and balances.
Most jarring about the state Democratic demise is how quickly it came about, following the timeline of a tea party surge in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008.
It was a little more than a decade ago that South Dakota had two Democratic U.S. senators in majority leader Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and a House member in Herseth Sandlin, lengthening a party legacy in Washington that included Jim Abourezk and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern.
Combined with Democratic stalwarts such as Billie Sutton, Rick Weiland, Jim Abbott and Jack Billion, there are no shortage of standard-bearers who should be concerned about the state party’s future.
Weiland has worked to pursue a progressive agenda primarily through ballot measures, while Sutton ran a strong and substantive gubernatorial campaign against Noem that positioned him as a party leader.
Though fresh perspectives are needed, it could be that a special Democratic Party summit with prominent voices is needed to find a modicum of momentum heading into 2020.
It is national elections, after all, that frequently move the needle of state politics, as do seismic developments such as the potential impeachment of a president.
Rather than simply wait for political winds to inspire its base and change its fortunes, the South Dakota Democratic Party needs to show that it can deliver on the promise of a better future with inspiring candidates, a consistent message and the financial wherewithal to stay in the game.
As it stands, they’ve got miles to go and a short time to get there.