Republican leaders flip the script this session, go on offensive against insurgents
During a 2023 press conference at the Capitol in Pierre, state Sen. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, announces a complaint against senators who voted to suspend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, who is pictured to the left of Pischke. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight).
The traditional narrative about the split in the South Dakota Republican Party is outsider driven — people on the edges of the party working to gain influence by becoming delegates to the state party convention, running in primary elections, and engaging in online activism.
But during this year’s legislative session, it’s the insiders, not the outsiders, who’ve seized the initiative.
Republicans viewed as more moderate or mainstream have maneuvered to keep insurgent Republicans out of leadership positions, to remove some of their power over statewide candidate nominations, and to have one of them censured.
The top-ranking state senator, President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, has been a leader in those efforts. He views the skirmishes as part of a larger fight over the future of the party. He wants the party to solve problems for South Dakotans, he said, while he alleged some in his party are only interested in whatever pundits are shouting about in partisan media.
“Sean Hannity has never made sure that a train ran on time or a pothole got filled, but they look to these folks like they’re policy people,” Schoenbeck said, referencing a popular Fox News host.
Some of the people Schoenbeck described as “these folks” are associated, publicly or privately, with the South Dakota Freedom Caucus. The caucus formed in June with a goal of pushing the Republican Party in a direction that members of the new caucus describe as more conservative.
The chairman of the Freedom Caucus is Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg. He said there’s nothing wrong with drawing motivation from conservative media.
“That’s one of the reasons I ran. I was a ‘keyboard warrior,’” Aylward said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna try to do something’ instead of just putting stuff on Facebook.”
On the offensive
The opening day of the current legislative session, in January, brought the first clue that this session would be a tough one for the Freedom Caucus and its allies.
Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, was the prior session’s speaker pro tempore, which meant that if six decades of tradition held, he would be elected this session’s speaker of the House by his fellow state representatives. But Hansen – whose name was later included on a leaked list of purported Freedom Caucus members – was passed over for the job.
Then, on Feb. 1, the Schoenbeck-led Senate censured Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, who was one of the legislators Schoenbeck named during a public rant last year about “wackadoodles.” The censure was for harassing statements Frye-Mueller allegedly made to a Legislative Research Council staffer, in which Frye-Mueller allegedly disparaged the safety of vaccines and offered lewd advice about breastfeeding.
One month later, Sen. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, responded by asking the state’s attorney of Hughes County, which includes Pierre, to investigate his fellow senators’ actions against Frye-Mueller. Pischke, who cast the only vote against Frye-Mueller’s censure, claimed the senators violated a law against preventing or intimidating a legislator from attending or voting on Senate business.
The state’s attorney, Jessica LaMie, quickly responded with a letter saying she will not take any action on the request, because she lacks legal standing to interfere in the inner-workings of the Legislature.
Meanwhile, a bill Schoenbeck co-sponsors would have moved the nominating process for several statewide candidates (including attorney general, secretary of state and others) from the state party convention to primary elections, and removed lieutenant governor nominations from the convention in favor of letting gubernatorial candidates choose their own running mate. The legislation has since been amended, amid Republican infighting, to only change the lieutenant governor nominating process.
The legislation is widely viewed as a backlash against party insurgents who’ve used their positions as convention delegates to nominate candidates such as Monae Johnson, the new secretary of state who has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2020 election. She had enough support from convention delegates last summer to oust incumbent Republican Steve Barnett.
At that same convention, delegates who supported Gov. Kristi Noem’s defeated primary challenger, Steve Haugaard, nearly rallied enough support to nominate him as Noem’s running mate instead of Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden.
Points of contention
Some of the divide in the Republican Party is based on rhetoric and temperament. Schoenbeck said Republicans driven by partisan media rants and social media outrage have a tough time fitting in.
“I think it’s fair to say they irritate normal Republicans because they’re just so vitriolic,” he said.
Other Republicans say that beyond differences in style, there’s little that separates different groups of Republicans on issues.
Pat Powers writes the South Dakota War College blog from a Republican perspective, and he sometimes criticizes the rhetoric and actions of some of the same Republicans who’ve ended up in Schoenbeck’s crosshairs. Powers rejects the argument from some Republicans that they’re the “true conservatives” while others are RINOs – Republicans in name only.
“I’ve been involved with the Republican Party for over 35 years now, and at one time, people who held my point of view were considered the ultra-conservatives,” Powers said. “And now, as we’ve gotten older, there are people who think we’re the moderates.”
Powers said “people are in the Republican Party by virtue of registering Republican,” and that means there will always be disagreements. But at the end of the day, they “disagree on very little.”
Still, there are substantive differences – for example, a bill that passed this session that freed up $200 million for workforce housing infrastructure in the state.
Some Republicans argued the spending is justified because the state is short of workers and affordable housing. Others, including some Freedom Caucus members, argued the money is a liberal, big-government handout to the private housing market.
Rep. Aylward, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, cast one of the votes against the bill. He said some Republican leaders have strayed from traditional conservative ideals.
“What they’re actually advocating for is early 20th-century Democrat proposals, and we’re trying to fight that,” Aylward said. “We’re actually trying to get down to the base-level principles.”
Aylward said the animosity within the party hurts his caucus’ bills. All legislators’ opinions of one another feed into their votes, he said, adding, “I don’t think anybody can deny that.”
Four of 18 bills sponsored by the Freedom Caucus’ leaders this session have passed. Schoenbeck said the Freedom Caucus and their allies’ bills rarely succeed because they are often “not well thought-out” pieces of legislation, and when the bill is a good idea, they haven’t carefully considered the consequences of the language in it.
The fight goes on
The losses suffered by the Freedom Caucus and their allies aren’t likely to make them back down. Instead, some view their defeats as evidence of plots against them by Republicans in leadership positions.
And there are, in fact, organized efforts by Republicans on both sides of the divide to push other Republicans out of office. Freedom Caucus lobbyist Jordan Mason’s Shining Light PAC has sent political postcards attacking Republicans. Schoenbeck and Gov. Noem have also been active in opposing the campaigns of some Republican legislators.
But that’s politics, according to Pat Powers.
“Sometimes, when you’re fed a steady diet of what’s on the internet, you automatically think there’s a conspiracy,” Powers said. “But candidate recruitment is something that’s happened as long as I’ve been involved in the Republican Party.”
Some of the bitterest fights are happening at the lowest level of the party.
Despite U.S. Sen. John Thune winning 75% of the vote in Charles Mix County in 2022, the Charles Mix County Republican Party Central Committee censured Thune and his fellow Republican Sen. Mike Rounds on Jan. 7.
The censure resolution said it was intended “to send a real message” to the two senators about their votes to pass a recent appropriations bill that the censure resolution described as “way out of compliance with the state party platform.”
Actions like that are evidence that the Freedom Caucus and its allies are in line with the feelings of some Republicans. There’s enough frustration with top-ranking Republicans to provide a base of support for Freedom Caucus members and their allies who want to win elected offices and change the party, according to Aylward.
“That’s why folks like that continue to get voted in,” he said. “Because come campaign time, they’re saying all the right stuff.”
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