South Dakota political parties battle themselves more than each other

August 16, 2023 6:20 pm
(Getty Images illustration)

(Getty Images illustration)

It used to be that the toughest thing about politics was getting elected to office. Lately in South Dakota, the toughest thing about politics has been keeping the parties in line.

That was apparent this month when Dan Ahlers, the executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, resigned. Ahlers, who was hired in May and still had that new executive director smell, said he couldn’t work with the party’s chairwoman, Jennifer Slaight-Hansen.

Ahlers was a an oddity in South Dakota Democratic politics in that he had actually been elected to public office, serving in the state Legislature. With only 11 Democrats in the Legislature, the party needs a top recruiter in a position of leadership as the party has a bad habit of forgetting to find enough candidates to fill out the ballot whenever an election comes around.

Ahlers’ departure was fueled by his charges of Slaight-Hansen’s foul language, her inability to play well with others and her dicey ideas for a possibly illegal fundraiser. In a Black Hills Pioneer story, Slaight-Hansen summed up the dispute by saying that she and Ahlers didn’t “develop a good working relationship.” She also said she would not resign from her party post, even though Democratic legislators and some of the party’s largest county organizations are calling for her head.

This is not the best time for the party’s leadership to be in disarray. Candidates have to be found for the fast approaching 2024 election as do more people who identify as Democrats. According to the math in a recent Dakota Free Press article, given recent voter registration trends, by October the number of voters registered as independents or without party affiliation should overtake the number of people in the state who are registered as Democrats.

Accustomed to being in second place in voter registrations behind Republicans, Democrats now face the prospect of having even fewer registered voters than independents. Their third place standing will be all the more disheartening because they will have been overtaken by a group that is unorganized — a group that made the leap into second place without the benefit of anyone actively trying to register more independents.

It’s safe to say that the state’s Republicans may be chuckling over the latest challenges faced by their Democratic counterparts. However, the GOP is not without some upheaval of its own.

A number of Republicans were upset over the sudden cancellation of a July fundraiser and committee meeting that left some party members paying for nonrefundable hotel rooms. Now it seems that former President Donald Trump, leading in Republican presidential primary polls and in the number of indictments, will be the speaker Sept. 8 at a rescheduled GOP gathering in Rapid City.

The Dakota Scout characterized Trump’s visit as a way to unify the state’s Republican Party. For a party that holds super majorities in the Legislature as well as every statewide elected office, Republicans sure look like they could use some unity. Often in the last legislative session, Republican seemed to be at war with themselves.

They turned their backs on most of the major bills backed by Gov. Kristi Noem, supposedly the leader of their party. There was little peace to be found internally as ultra-conservative members of the party — labeled “wackadoodles” by the senate majority leader — pressed their far-right agenda at every opportunity. This led to animosity from those Republican who are more interested in steering the ship of state than they are in running it aground.

A party that turns to Donald Trump for unity is likely to be looking for it in the wrong place. But, given the chaos of his tenure in the White House, the former president should feel right at home among South Dakota’s political parties.




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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.