Proposed bylaws change would entrench Republican establishment in South Dakota, opponents say
At the South Dakota Republican Party's annual meeting of the State Central Committee, delegates face a choice on who gets a say at party conventions, and who will lead the party into the future.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When the South Dakota Republican Party’s State Central Committee gathers for its annual meeting on Jan. 14, it will mull two decisions that could come to define the party’s direction moving forward — selecting a new chair to replace the outgoing Dan Lederman and potentially changing who gets a say in selecting statewide officers at the party’s convention.
In the race for party chair, Sen. John Wiik, of Big Stone City, is running against Tom Brunner, a former legislator from Nisland. Brunner entered the race last week after Rep. Kevin Jensen — who announced his candidacy in late December — decided against continuing his campaign.
In the party’s divisions between the so-called establishment and its more outspoken, conservative wing, Brunner carries the mantle for the latter.
“It can’t be that we all just agree with the administration and go along to get along,” Brunner said about his motivation to run. “We need fresh ideas.”
He is supported by several of the state’s most conservative legislators as well as Steve Haugaard, who lost in a race against incumbent Gov. Kristi Noem in last year’s primary and then made a bid for lieutenant governor at last June’s convention, earning 44% of the delegate vote and coming closer than expected to unseating incumbent Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden.
“My experience with Sen. Wiik over the past couple of years in appropriations has been that there has been far too much of a bent in the direction of the lobbyists that exist in Pierre, from broadband companies to the Genesee railroad to the child care interests,” Haugaard said during a town hall supporting Brunner for party chair on Jan. 11. “And those aren’t Republican values, from my perspective.”
Wiik, who is touting hundreds of endorsements including Noem, and his running mate, Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, of Saint Onge, both declined to comment on the upcoming election.
Yet even more important than who sits atop the state’s dominant party might be the result of a proposed bylaws change that will be considered at the committee meeting, which would strip precinct committeemen of their voting rights at the state convention.
Precinct committeemen are the elected officials closest to individual voters; in theory, these individuals are responsible for grassroots organizing duties such as registering and contacting voters. However, according to the party’s Bylaws Committee, these duties have been “substantially neglected” since the “duties of the position are not aligned with the primary means of their recruitment.”
Essentially, the Bylaws Committee believes these precinct-level delegates are only taking the position in order to vote at the convention and neglecting the rest of their duties. The proposed bylaw change would replace these delegates with at-large county delegates weighted by county population for purposes of voting at the convention. Enacting the change requires a favorable vote from two-thirds of the State Central Committee.
Opponents of the proposed change say it would hamper the party’s ability to recruit active members and may not even solve the problem it purports to care about, instead making most of the precinct committeemen leave their posts entirely.
“Most of us got started in politics being involved at the local and county level,” Brunner said.
But beyond the stated reasons for changing the composition of voters at the state convention — where in lieu of a primary the party's delegates elect several constitutional officers including the attorney general, secretary of state and lieutenant governor — members of the party’s conservative wing say the proposed change is a reaction to the events of last year’s convention.
At the June convention, a record 687 delegates from around the state, the majority of them precinct committeemen, came close to upending well-known candidates thought to be entirely safe, including Larry Rhoden and Attorney General Marty Jackley, who earned 52% of delegate votes to narrowly escape a challenge from former Division of Criminal Investigations Director David Natvig.
In the case of Monae Johnson, the conservative wing of the party succeeded in overthrowing incumbent Steve Barnett. Brunner says the power centers in the party want to “move the goalposts” rather than engage with the energized wing on the party’s right flank.
“I do think this is a reaction by the so-called establishment to the events at the convention,” said Tony Randolph, a legislator from Rapid City who serves as vice chairman of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative legislators.
Were the bylaws change to fail, several legislators plan to advance a piece of legislation that would accomplish a somewhat similar set of goals. It would allow the governor, who is already chosen through a statewide primary, the opportunity to choose their lieutenant governor, and would create statewide primaries for attorney general and secretary of state.
“I think we need to modernize,” Sen. Helene Duhamel, of Rapid City, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said. “We don’t need a small group of people doing a smoke-filled, backroom vote.”
Though he understands the idea of the governor picking a running mate, Brunner opposes the change to a popular primary, saying it would favor already-established candidates.
“I don’t want more races where whoever has the most money wins,” Brunner said. “We have enough of those already.”
The annual meeting begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 14 in Pierre. The State Central Committee is made up of four members from each organized county — the chair, vice chair, state central committeeman and state central committeewoman — as well as a handful of state-level officials, who each have one vote regardless of county size.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.