The Decline of South Dakota Democrats

Democrats are losing elections across the Mount Rushmore State at a pace not seen since the Eisenhower administration

southdakotademocrats20A recent report published by the Argus Leader outlined a rare bright spot for South Dakota Democrats with GOP Governor Dennis Daugaard exploring the expansion of Medicaid in the state, a policy Democratic Party leaders have backed for the last few years.

The article goes on to cite Secretary of State voter registration numbers for Democrats at just 33 percent and summarizes the party’s state of affairs as, quoting Smart Politics, “This is the bleakest outlook for the party since the 1950s.”

A six-decade low for Democrats? Indeed, electoral outcomes in recent cycles suggest this is so.

To begin with, the 2014 election cycle saw South Dakota Republicans sweep all statewide races and the GOP now holds every statewide office for the first time since 1961.

The retirement of Tim Johnson in the state’s Class II U.S. Senate seat was the last statewide office to fall for the party which once held six such offices as late as the end of the 1990s (both U.S. Senate seats plus state Treasurer, Commissioner of Schools and Public Lands, and two seats on the Public Utilities Commission).

Overall, Republicans have won 446 of 534 statewide elections in South Dakota since statehood (83.5 percent) and Democrats have generally been perennial underdogs over the last 125+ years, with the exception of two stints in the 20th Century in which the party benefited from a strong national partisan wind at its back.

Democrats have only held a majority of statewide offices following the election of Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s (from 1933 to 1938) and in the midst of the Watergate scandal (1973 to 1978).

Secondly, the 2014 cycle also saw South Dakota Democrats get blown out in historic fashion with Governor Daugaard’s 45-point victory the largest across the 54 gubernatorial contests conducted since statehood.

The win was an exclamation mark for the GOP, which has made Democrats suffer through 10 consecutive gubernatorial losses – the longest current streak for either party in the nation.

The margin of loss was particularly disappointing for the Democrats who fielded just the fourth all-female gubernatorial ticket in U.S. history out of the more than 40 elections in which a female gubernatorial nominee had a running mate.

Thirdly, in 2010 Democrats did not run a nominee against incumbent John Thune marking the first time in state history the party failed to field a candidate in a U.S. Senate race.

And now Democrats are at risk of doing the same against the popular GOP officeholder in 2016. If that happens, it would be just the second time in U.S. history – and the first time in more than 75 years – that a Republican nominee ran unchallenged by a Democratic opponent for two consecutive cycles. (The last to do so was California’s Hiram Johnson in 1934 and 1940).

Fourthly, the depth of the Democratic Party’s troubles in South Dakota can be seen by its thin bench in the state legislature.

Democrats emerged from the 2014 cycle with a 58 to 12 deficit in the state house – the worst showing for the party since the 1966 GOP landslide when Republicans claimed 64 of 75 seats.

In the state senate, Republicans have a 27 to 8 advantage and have now won north of 25 of the chamber’s 35 seats for three consecutive cycles – the first time that has been accomplished since the early 1950s.

Overall, this is indeed the bleakest outlook for South Dakota Democrats since the tail end of the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

The last time winning electoral office proved so difficult for Democrats was during a 16-year stretch from 1943 to 1958 when Republicans held all statewide offices along with huge majorities in the state legislature that included the GOP pitching 35-0 shutouts in the senate in 1944, 1946, and 1952 and holding the number of Democrats in the state house to single digits in 1942 (six), 1944 (three), 1946 (four), 1950 (nine), and 1952 (two).

Finally, South Dakota Democrats cannot expect too much help at the top of the ticket in 2016’s presidential race.

Republicans are in the midst of a 12-cycle winning streak in the Mount Rushmore State dating back to Richard Nixon’s first victory in 1968. [A feat also accomplished in eight other states: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming].

If the GOP presidential nominee wins again in South Dakota next November, the state will be in a tie for the ninth longest winning streak in party history at 13 in a row.

While Democrats are struggling mightily in South Dakota, the party’s difficulties in recent cycles is due in part to the national waves the GOP has enjoyed – waves that have also beset the party in the region more generally.

A previous Smart Politics study of over 500 Midwestern gubernatorial elections since 1900 found that the 82 percent winning percentage by Republicans this decade is the highest for the GOP since the 1920s.

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3 Comments on "The Decline of South Dakota Democrats"

  1. I used to be a South Dakota democrat, my husband a Republican, and we would attend events held by both parties.
    At Republican events, the attendees were clean & well dressed, paid for the food, wrote checks, and asked candidates “what can we do to help?”
    At the democrat events, the attendees were unkempt, did not pay for the food, did not make donations, and would ask the candidates “what are you going to do for me?”
    You can’t create a viable party out of social parasites. You just can’t. You need people who are willing to give of their time and money.

  2. PORTER LANSING | December 21, 2015 at 8:16 am | Reply

    And that’s what happens when the best and brightest liberals move to Minnesota or Colorado upon graduation. Being liberal in the “State of the Selfish” holds little rewards or hope to change the world in a positive way. A story about the USA achievements of liberals who grew up in SoDak but left for bluer pastures would be interesting.

  3. 1. Setting aside the recruiting troubles against Thune, the Mount Rushmore State already may lay claim as THE most staunchily R state in the nation, if presidential and gubernatorial trends are combined (beginning with Nixon in ’68 and Janklow in ’78).
    2. It would likely require a R president who is perceived as personally corrupt (a la Nixon), or insensitive to agricultural concerns (a la Reagan) for the Ds to become a credible competing force once again.

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