New Democratic leader faces challenge filling blank spots on ballots

June 1, 2023 4:29 pm
Dan Ahlers. (Courtesy of South Dakota Democratic Party)

Dan Ahlers. (Courtesy of South Dakota Democratic Party)

The South Dakota Democratic Party has a new executive director. Let’s resist the urge to make a comparison to the captain of the Titanic. While the Titanic sank, at this point there’s no place for the South Dakota Democratic Party to go but up.

Dan Ahlers of Dell Rapids is the new executive director and he brings with him an impressive resume as he takes over the day-to-day operation of the state’s minority party. Ahlers served as the administrator of the Dell Rapids Chamber of Commerce, but, more importantly, he’s a former legislator and once challenged Mike Rounds in a U.S. Senate election.

When Alhlers’ hiring was announced on KELO, he said he looked “forward to continuing the legacy of past executive directors.” Here’s hoping Ahlers sets the bar higher than his predecessors.

It’s hard to imagine a state political party in worse shape than Democrats are in South Dakota. They hold no statewide or national elected office. None. Their representation in the Legislature is minimal with seven members in the House and four members in the Senate.

Political parties rely on elections for their power, yet South Dakota’s Democratic Party has placed little emphasis on getting candidates on the ballot. In 2022, Republicans were guaranteed majorities in both chambers of the Legislature before a single ballot was cast. Democrats didn’t field any legislative candidates for 26 of 35 Senate seats and failed to run candidates for 32 of 70 House races.

Let’s resist the urge to make a comparison to the captain of the Titanic. While the Titanic sank, at this point there’s no place for the South Dakota Democratic Party to go but up.

Legislative races weren’t the only ones that Democrats shied away from. In 2022, they failed to field candidates for U.S. House as well as state attorney general and auditor.

This isn’t meant to be a call for a heaping helping of Democratic-endorsed policies. But it’s hard to even know what those policies are when most South Dakota voters aren’t allowed a candidate debate on the issues, because there’s a blank spot on the ballot where the Democratic candidate should be.

In announcing Ahlers’ appointment, The Dakota Scout offered a quote from the new executive director in which he recalled the party’s “rich history,” noting the successes of Dick Kneip, Jim Abourezk, George McGovern, Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. That amounts to a crowded Mount Rushmore of Democratic politics in South Dakota. The last of them to hold office was Tim Johnson in 2015.

Perhaps Ahlers is the right man for the job of lifting up a sorely diminished political party. Aside from his work background and familiarity with the Legislature, Ahlers has experience at something that the Democratic Party desperately needs: being a candidate.

He was successfully elected to both the House and Senate in the Legislature and, as mentioned, even challenged Sen. Mike Rounds in 2020. It takes courage for a minority party candidate to take on one of the most popular Republicans in recent history. Ahlers showed that courage, though he probably had a pretty good idea of what the outcome would be.

South Dakota deserves a robust two-party system. Maybe Dan Ahlers, through his experience as a candidate, will be able to lead by example and attract more Democratic candidates to the ballot. Success in that area could quell the temptation to use the Democratic Party as a punchline and help bring the party back to relevance.



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.