Are South Dakota Democrats vanishing from state government?

By  | 

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Are Democrats increasingly fading from South Dakota's political scene? If the answer is yes ... there goes the state's two–party system.

Rep. Shawn Bordeaux (D-District 26A), on the right; and Rep. Oren Lesmeister (D-District 28A), in the middle; take the oath of office on the opening day of the 2017 South Dakota Legislative Session. (photo by Jack Siebold)

Scan the state House floor and you still see Democrats like Representatives Shawn Bordeaux and Oren Lesmeister. But with only 10 of 70 seats, they are increasingly a rare sight.

"I try not to be pessimistic about the situation. I realize where I'm at in South Dakota," Bordeaux said.

“It’s tough,” added Lesmeister. “We’re going to fight the fight. We’re going to propose some bills. We’re going to try to do what we can.”

It is no better in the Senate chamber where Democrats are outnumbered 29 to six.

This year, the Democratic showing in the state Legislature is the worst in decades.

The vanishing Democrats makes you wonder, is the state party heading toward extinction?

“I don’t like the direction we’re going in, I can tell you that. ‘Extinct’ I think is too radical. I’m not going to buy into extinct,” Judy Duhamel said.

Still, Duhamel, a former state senator from 1989 to 1993 and former state party chair for eight years, knows it isn't just the Legislature where Democrats have trouble.

The last time the party occupied the state's top job was 1971 to 1978, when Dick Kneip was governor.

Since then, Democrats have lost 10 straight gubernatorial contests. It is a longer losing streak than any other state party.

"We need to revamp. We definitely have problems. I'm not here to tell you the Democratic Party is shining," Duhamel admitted.

Revamping won't be easy with the Democratic National Committee in disarray.

The DNC focused so much attention and resources on trying to win the White House that they lost many of the states.

"I think there is quite a disconnect between some of the national people and the local people," Bordeaux claimed.

"When the Democratic National Committee is committed to supporting state strategies with funding and resources it's another world. And we've not had that," Duhamel explained.

Duhamel acknowledges that the state Democrats don't have the depth today to reverse the trend.

"It certainly helped when we had a Tom Daschle, a Tim Johnson and a Stephanie Herseth supporting the state party in a number of ways," Duhamel said.

The lack of a strong statewide leader doesn't discourage Lesmeister.

If we can start winning some things here right on this House floor or the Senate floor and people see that we’re doing things right … I think we’ll build momentum. It ain’t gonna happen overnight; but it will happen eventually,” Lesmeister hopes.

First the Democratic Party has to stop the hemorrhaging.

In the last two years, the South Dakota Democratic Party lost 6,011voters while the Republicans gained 13,024.

While the Republicans are outdistancing Democrats in South Dakota, independent voters gained the most ground, up 19,116 for the 2016 general election. Independents are closing the gap with Democrats. That gap today is less than 50,000 voters.

“I was a little bit frustrated to see that our party was going one way and the voters were all going the other way,” Bordeaux said. “And we couldn’t seem to relate to them in the way that we would have liked to.”