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New landscape confronts South Dakota Republicans after political earthquake shakes incumbents

Joshua Haiar
South Dakota Searchlight
Representative Scott Odenbach leans over to talk with Representative Randy Gross during the first day of the legislative session on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.

A literal聽聽shook the state Capitol in Pierre last week. State Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, said a political earthquake shook the Capitol on Tuesday night.

鈥淭he people are waking up,鈥 Odenbach said.聽

He and others within a faction of the South Dakota Republican Party say it鈥檚 being run by politicians who are not as conservative as the party鈥檚 base of supporters. Their efforts to change that contributed to聽聽by incumbent Republican legislators in Tuesday鈥檚 primary election. Odenbach鈥檚 political action committee聽聽ahead of the primary in support of some winning candidates.

Current Republican House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Fort Pierre 鈥 who is unopposed for reelection 鈥 said new legislators are always welcome, but losing 14 incumbents comes with a cost.聽

鈥淚t鈥檚 an opportunity for new ideas, but it does mean we lost a lot of institutional knowledge,鈥 he said.

Those losses include Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, who鈥檚 served 24 years in the Legislature, and Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, who has served 16 years, among others.

House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Fort Pierre, speaks on the state House floor in January 2024.

Mortenson鈥檚 political action committee聽聽to help聽聽and other candidates that Odenbach聽.听听听

Mortenson blamed the incumbent losses mostly on historically low voter turnout of 17%, which he said creates an environment in which a motivated faction can turn out enough voters to swing a primary race.

Pipelines and property taxes

Odenbach said challengers won because of quality candidate recruitment, a good ground game and the right messaging.聽

Much of that messaging, especially in eastern South Dakota, capitalized on opposition to Summit Carbon Solutions鈥 proposed聽. It would collect carbon dioxide produced by ethanol plants in South Dakota and other states and move it through an underground pipeline for sequestration in North Dakota, passing through farms, ranches and other private property along the way.聽

The project has caused more than two years of legal and legislative wrangling over landowner rights and eminent domain, the legal maneuver through which a company can seize property for projects in the public interest.

鈥淎 lot of candidates have been saying South Dakota is open for business, but not for sale, and that was proven last night,鈥 Odenbach said.

Mortenson and some other Republican leaders聽聽during the last legislative session to preserve a regulatory path forward for the pipeline while ensuring landowners receive additional protections. That put them at odds with some in their own party who sought stricter measures such as a ban on eminent domain for carbon pipelines. Some members of that faction are聽聽to refer the bill passed last session to a public vote in November.

From left, Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City; Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton; and Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls, participate in a Joint Appropriations Committee hearing in January 2024 at the Capitol in Pierre.

Odenbach said the pipeline debate is not over.聽

鈥淲e鈥檙e going to be back next session to better define public use and who gets to use eminent domain in South Dakota, like I tried to do during the recent session,鈥 he said.聽

Incumbent Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg, won his primary. He鈥檚 the president of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, which has butted heads with Republican leadership.聽On the topic of pipelines, he said, 鈥淚t鈥檚 not looking good for the carbon ones, that鈥檚 for sure.鈥

Aylward said incumbents lost Tuesday because 鈥減eople are tired of the same type of bureaucratic garbage they鈥檝e been fed for the last number of years.鈥

Meanwhile, in the Black Hills, rising property taxes animated many Republican voters. Former legislator Tim Goodwin, of Rapid City, earned one of District 30鈥檚 two Republican House nominations Tuesday. He and incumbent Rep. Trish Ladner, of Hot Springs, will face one Democrat in the November race for two House seats.

鈥淥ut here, property rights isn鈥檛 even on the radar,鈥 Goodwin said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 property taxes.鈥

Senators Casey Crabtree and Ryan Maher speak on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.

Greasing the open primaries wheel聽

Some Republicans think the inner-party friction is self-defeating. Pat Powers, writer of the聽聽political blog, said Tuesday鈥檚 primary results offer Democrats an opportunity to win some general election races if they run to the middle of the political spectrum. Democrats currently hold only 11 of the Legislature鈥檚 105 seats.聽

鈥淚t could very well mark a shift in the Republican party鈥檚 fortunes,鈥 Powers said.

Powers said Republican infighting also gives an聽聽a better chance of passing during the November general election. The measure would change some primaries to include all the candidates for an office, rather than splitting the candidates into party-specific primaries.

Tuesday鈥檚 low turnout and poor showing by incumbents gives ammunition to open primaries supporters, Powers said.

鈥淭hey can say, 鈥楲ook at what happens when we don鈥檛 have open primaries,鈥 and they have the money to get the message across.鈥

Drey Samuelson, who worked as Democratic former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson鈥檚 chief of staff for many years, is involved in the open primaries effort. He鈥檚 already making that argument.聽

鈥淭he closed primary system does not work very well. It nominates people who are to the extremes of the parties,鈥 Samuelson said. 鈥淲e can look at these primary results to see that.鈥

Samuelson said turnout would have been better if Democrats and independents had more to vote on than the Democratic presidential primary, in which President Joe Biden was already all but guaranteed a victory. There was only one Democratic legislative primary Tuesday in South Dakota, and 44 Republican legislative primaries.

Seeking change 鈥榝or the average person鈥櫬

Joy Hohn, a vocal opponent of eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines, bested former legislator Mark Willadsen for the Republican nomination for Sioux Falls District 9鈥檚 Senate seat. There is no Democratic or independent candidate running in the general election.

Hohn received a donation from Odenbach鈥檚 political action committee.

鈥淚 think that the citizens of South Dakota are seeing the need for a bigger focus on 鈥榳e the people,鈥欌 Hohn said. 鈥淲e don鈥檛 really need this pipeline.鈥

Hohn said the results of the election move the state in the right direction, 鈥渢oward true conservative values and our country鈥檚 founding principles.鈥

Incumbent Sen. Erin Tobin, R-Winner, fell by 48 votes (which is within the possible recount margin) to a political newcomer from Bonesteel named Mykala Voita, who also campaigned on the primacy of landowner rights.聽

鈥淭he people of South Dakota drew a line and they are speaking,鈥 Voita said. 鈥淚 think the people are sending a clear message that we don鈥檛 want to be trampled on, and if they鈥檙e going to come into our state, they鈥檙e going to play by our rules.鈥澛

In a four-way District 13 House of Representatives primary, incumbent Republican聽, of Sioux Falls, advanced to the general election as one of the top two finishers. But he received five fewer votes than newcomer John Hughes. There is no Democrat or independent on the ballot in November.聽

Hughes plans to push for change.聽

鈥淕overnment just isn鈥檛 working for the average person in South Dakota, especially in terms of economic development,鈥 Hughes said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 helping large corporate interests that are not paying their fair share when they come into South Dakota and take advantage of our business climate, and it鈥檚 at the expense of the taxpayer.鈥

Ousted Republican legislators

Republican legislators who lost their primary races Tuesday, according to聽聽from the Secretary of State鈥檚 Office (results are not official until the election is canvassed):

  • Sen. Erin Tobin, R-Winner
  • Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton
  • Rep. Byron Callies, R-Watertown
  • Rep. Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls
  • Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton
  • Rep. James Wangsness, R-Miller
  • Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence
  • Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel
  • Rep. Becky Drury, R-Rapid City
  • Sen. Mike Walsh, R-Rapid City
  • Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City
  • Rep. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center
  • Rep. Kirk Chaffee, R-Whitewood
  • Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City