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A little advice for the next leader of South Dakota’s Democrats

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A little advice for the next leader of South Dakota’s Democrats

Sep 23, 2023 | 2:00 pm ET
By Dana Hess
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A little advice for the next leader of South Dakota’s Democrats
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Shane Merrill, the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. (Courtesy of SDDP)

Shane Merrill is a farmer, so it’s a given that he knows all about hard work. Yet Merrill has set himself up to take on the hardest job in the state as chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Merrill had the chance to move up from interim chairman after the previous chairwoman, Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, was drummed out of office for a variety of management and personnel problems. Now that Merrill has the job, it means he will have to bring back to relevance a party that has suffered a near fatal dip in stature and membership.

Reestablishing the South Dakota Democratic Party won’t be easy. Merrill is likely to get all kinds of guidance about how to make it happen. Here’s some more unsolicited advice.

First, and most importantly, find more candidates. Currently there are seven Democrats in the state House and four in the state Senate. There are none in any of the statewide offices.

The Democratic Party has this super-minority status because it has for too long failed to offer candidates for office. In the last legislative election, Democrats gave the state Senate majority to Republicans by failing to field candidates for 25 of 35 Senate openings. The situation wasn’t much better in the House where Democrats failed to field candidates for 32 of 70 openings.

Democrats were scarce at the top of the ticket as well, failing to run candidates against Dusty Johnson for U.S. House and Marty Jackley for state attorney general. Republicans at the party convention put up more of a fight to defeat Jackley than Democrats did during the entire election cycle.

Leaving blank spots on the ballot means that South Dakotans don’t get the debate on the issues that they deserve. Lately most debates between candidates have been in Republican primaries where candidates try to out-conservative each other.

Second, no more whining about “one-party rule.” Republicans earned the super majorities in the House and Senate and filled every other statewide elected office the old-fashioned way, by offering candidates for office. Complaining about their majorities makes Democrats sound weak and highlights their past failures to find enough candidates to fill out a ballot.

Third, candidacy for office has to be a long-term deal. No more one and dones, especially at the top of the ticket. Granted South Dakota is a small state, but it’s hard to build name recognition when there’s a rotating list of candidates at the top of the ballot. Sure, losing is tough. But quitting after one try won’t build name recognition, create trust or help with fundraising.

Fourth, pick an identity and stick with it. Stop anyone on the street these days and they’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the South Dakota Democratic Party stands for. I’ve heard Democratic leaders in this state say that they don’t like being lumped in with Schumer, Pelosi and the Washington crowd. They say that their values are different. To build an identity, Democrats in this state must prove that they are striving to help working families.

Stop anyone on the street these days and they’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the South Dakota Democratic Party stands for.

The next election may help them build that identity. That election will likely feature a ballot issue to cut the state sales tax on groceries. This has long been an issue backed by Democrats, and the party’s candidates should grab it with both hands and make it their own.

Republicans erred in the last session when they chose cut the state sales tax from 4.5% to 4.2% rather than follow the governor’s lead and cut the sales tax on groceries. It’s hard to make a case that saving 30 cents on a $100 purchase is going to help working families. Cutting the state sales tax on groceries is popular, easy to understand and makes an impact on the pocketbook with each trip to the store. Championing that initiative would go a long way toward establishing the Democratic Party’s identity.

Fifth, stop the internal bickering. The next time the Democratic Party is in the news it should be to tout the quality of the many candidates it has running for election in the Legislature. There’s not much time left to make that happen. As the new chairman, Merrill has his work cut out for him. No one expects the party to be rejuvenated overnight, but if Merrill can be successful, it will be a positive step for governance and politics in South Dakota.