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Tim Johnson


VERMILLION, S.D. | South Dakota Democrats know they have an opportunity to upset two federal officeholders in 2016, as Republicans U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem will both seek re-election terms.

The big question is whether Democrats in an overwhelmingly Republican state can field formidable candidates and raise the campaign money to make a dent 14 months from now. From 1962 through 2014, at least one Democrat was among the South Dakota delegation serving in federal office.

But with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat from Vermillion who had held the seat for 18 years and the following loss by Democratic candidate Rick Weiland to Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds, now all three of the state's federal lawmakers are Republicans.

"In many respects, South Dakota is a de facto one-party state," South Dakota State University Professor David Wiltse said. "The Republican Party is strong and dominant, with little sign of weakening."

Former South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Director Ben Nesselhuf, a former state legislator from Vermillion now living in Sioux City, conceded "the last six years the pendulum has swung hard against" Midwest Democrats. He said people have bought into the claims that the Barack Obama presidency has been bad for the nation, in spite of lower unemployment and gas prices and higher numbers of people having health insurance coverage.

South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Director Suzanne Jones Pranger said the party has strengths that go overlooked, so there is capacity for a rebound.

"South Dakota Democrats know the value of party building. That is why we are rejuvenating our county party structure in many counties throughout South Dakota. We are investing in our youth," Jones Pranger said.

The reality of today's delegation makeup might make it hard to remember that for the last half of 2004 all three of the federal lawmakers were Democrats -- with Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Senate and Stephanie Herseth in the House.

Democrats also haven't held the South Dakota governorship since 1978 and trail substantially in the number of statehouse lawmakers, who in large part form the bench for candidates who can try to jump into federal office. It is not a rosy picture for the state's Democrats to rise off the canvas and make a quick comeback, Wiltse said.

The state has one perceived Democratic candidate in waiting, Tim Johnson's son, Brendan Johnson, a former U.S. Attorney who considered but did not run for his father's seat last year. The Democratic state legislators may not be widely known through the state, but if they can seize momentum -- through a variety of factors -- in the right year, they can rise from relative obscurity to federal office, Jones Pranger said.

That happened for Noem in 2010, when she emerged out of a Republican primary. It just hasn't happened for the state's Democrats for a long time.

"It is a very weak bench ... Even Democratic leaders in the (Legislature) have low profiles and very narrow constituencies from their home districts," Wiltse said.

The last good year for Democrats came in 2008, when Herseth (who became Herseth Sandlin following a 2007 marriage) handily won a third term in the House, as did Johnson in the Senate, with both candidates drawing well above 60 percent of the vote.

Herseth didn't come from a legislative background, but was an attorney who came from a political family, as her grandfather, Ralph Herseth was elected as governor and grandmother, Lorna Herseth was Secretary of State.

The advantage that Republicans have in terms of registered voters has increased since the 2012 election, with the number of Republicans moving from 235,620 to 242,729 and Democrats dropping from 185,844 to 174,110. University of South Dakota Professor Elizabeth Smith said many independents also consistently vote Republican.

The professors said South Dakota demographics and recent trends paint a difficult picture for Democrats. The state has large Sioux Falls in the east, and a host of sparsely populated counties elsewhere, particularly West River.

"South Dakota largely mirrors the national trend for rural areas to vote more Republican and urban areas to vote for Democratic," Smith said.

Smith said an opening for Democrats could come as rural areas depopulate and Sioux Falls continues to grow.

Wiltse said South Dakota people typically identify with the Republican Party because the 20th century populism with Democratic leanings in Upper Great Plains states wore off and due to the rise of religious and social conservatism in the 1980s.

"Social conservatives and rural populists, who would have considered voting Democratic in the past, are now a unified force politically, and solidly Republican," Wiltse said.

South Dakota Republican Party Political Director Jason Glodt said the state's residents respond to a message of fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and conservatism on social issues.

"It will continue to be a Republican advantage for years to come," Glodt said.

Jones Pranger said one indication of South Dakotans lining up with Democrats is in the outcomes of referendums where state laws were overturned, such as a hard-line abortion law. Jones Pranger and Nesselhuf said that is an indication that Democrats can rise again, given more campaign money and energized support for a new wave of candidates.

"The pendulum will swing back and when it does, the Democrats in South Dakota will win more elections," Nesselhuf said.

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