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Home » Democrats in South Dakota believe they can grow caucus with new legislative map
SIOUX FALLS, SD – Just weeks after the first election under new legislative district lines, Democrats in both houses are hoping they can improve on the total of 11 lawmakers they sent to Pierre during the last session.
Her electoral performance in 2022 could herald the party’s relevance in the legislature throughout the decade.
“I don’t want to get elected if it’s just me there,” Reynold Nesiba, the incumbent senator from District 15 in Sioux Falls, told the Forum News Service at a campaign event.
Nesiba said his goal is at least six senators, twice as many as Democrats last session and possibly just enough for another seat on the key Senate Appropriations Committee. Last year, Nesiba was the only Democrat on the nine-member board.
In the House of Representatives, Representative Linda Duba set the number at a minimum of 12 members, a significant improvement from the last session of eight Democrats. Duba said the increase is crucial for committee and summer study appointments, but would also make the Democratic faction a more effective player in coalition-building if Republicans on the side of the House of Representatives continue to nurture ideological divisions.
Linda Duba, a District 15 candidate for the House of Representatives, speaks at an abortion rights rally September 25 in Sioux Falls.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
“It requires interactions with people, going door-to-door,” Duba said of the journey to an increasing number of Democrats. “We have to hold each seat and then add.”
Aside from efforts to mobilize voters, Democrats looking to improve their numbers in Pierre have to thank Senate Republicans, who drew a “compromise” map during a heated special session in November 2021. Drew Dennert, a House Republican who served on the constituency committee and is now running for commissioner in Brown County, saw this process as a political bypass of House Conservatives.
“For me, the whole plan is from Sen. [Lee] Schonbeck and his allies should create a map that looks reasonable on the surface,” Dennert said. “But behind the scenes, it was basically a radical proposal to eliminate their political enemies, and Democrats benefited because the Republican faction in the House of Representatives was divided over the plan.”
Drew Dennert, a Brown County representative. Dennert does not return to the legislature and is running for commissioner in Brown County.
Courtesy of the South Dakota Legislature
Schoenbeck told Forum News Service that the final map generally reflects his personal view that legislative districts should keep counties and communities together whenever possible. He added that the specifics of county-level carving in Sioux Falls and Rapid City were not directed by him.
A few months before the battle for redistribution, Schoenbeck fleshed out his preferred map and the detailed theory behind it in a column published at South Dakota War College.
“The final map looks very much like it [my proposed map] on the big shots, but that’s because anyone who cares about South Dakota with a marginally functioning brain would end up on the exact same map,” Schoenbeck said.
Schoenbeck says the potential for Democratic gains is a by-product of a contingent of House Republicans who “weren’t about looking at South Dakota” and were more interested in election results.
“I would call [Democrats] The winners in the sense that they chose a more affordable Rapid City district than they should have,” Schoenbeck said, referring to District 32 in the north of the city. “But they only got him because of the extreme, irrational elements of the Republican party that Drew Dennert represents voted against the favorable Republican card. And when they voted against, they forced the Senate and sane Republicans to make a deal with the Democrats to get a ticket.”
Regardless of the intentions behind it, the card gives Democrats a clear path to potentially doubling their numbers; Democrats took party registration numbers as a general roadmap for voting options, holding their advantage in Districts 10 and 15 in Sioux Falls, and in land and reservation districts in 26 and 27.
In addition, the Democrats are within striking distance of District 32 in Rapid City and rural District 1 northeast of Aberdeen, and District 14 in Sioux Falls. Those races will depend on how the sizable cohort of registered Independents swings at any one time.
But Democrats don’t count chickens before they hatch.
In District 15, newcomer Kadyn Wittman says the most important task for Democrats is to convey to voters that the district in downtown Sioux Falls, once a Democrat stronghold, now has a more balanced partisan identification.
“People think it’s a safe neighborhood, but we have to fight like it’s not,” Wittman said.
While District 15 is an important district to defend, a unique opportunity for Democrats is District 32, which represents the party’s first shot in Rapid City in multiple cycles.
For newcomer Christine Stephenson, who used to serve on the Rapid City School Board, the difficulty is convincing voters in the northern part of the city that after being divided into a handful of more Republican-leaning districts for several years, the reallocation is now happening their votes means they can choose a seat.
“With a little education, people get the idea that their voice could play a role this year. Not only that, but if they don’t vote, people won’t listen to them,” Stephenson said. “That’s pretty much how I approached it. I feel like we’ve had a party-led legislature for so long that they don’t have to answer to anyone.”
Though District 1 has 800 fewer registered Democrats than Republicans, Senate candidate Susan Wismer hopes the 3,000 Independents can make up the difference.
“When I speak to voters, I say, even if you’re independent, you still have to believe in partisan equilibrium,” Wismer, a political veteran and former gubernatorial candidate, told the Forum News Service of her address to independent voters. “And this is one of the few places in rural South Dakota where you can still get it.”
Rep. Erin Healy, an incumbent running for office in District 10, a favorable Democratic district in Sioux Falls.
Despite the reality that Republicans are likely to continue to dominate the legislature for years to come, Erin Healy, a sitting Democrat from Sioux Falls, said she’s excited to see the results on the new map and hopes for the 2022 results to be able to build up for subsequent elections under the same borders.
“It’s going to be really interesting to know how these independents will vote with these new counties,” Healy said. “Then we have a good idea of how we’re going to move forward with these new frontiers over the next decade, which is exactly what’s in store for us in the future.”
Jason harward is a
Report for America
Corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at