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PACs heavily favor one bloc of legislative candidates

todayJune 2, 2024 4

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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Dozens of South Dakota political action committees are contributing hundreds and oftentimes thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates competing in this week’s primary elections for seats in the South Dakota Legislature.

Trying to better understand where the South Dakota Legislature might be heading, KELOLAND News looked at each of the campaign-finance reports filed in the past month by South Dakota political action committees ahead of the June 4 primary elections. While some of the more than 170 active PACs didn’t file, and quite a few chose to stay clear, more than 40 contributed many thousands of dollars into the primary races.

Nearly all of the Tuesday contests are for the right to represent the Republican Party on the November general election ballot, with two clear blocs of GOP candidates facing off. What’s striking is that so many PACs have chosen this year to wade into these internal-party battles — and that nearly all of those PACs have clearly aligned with one bloc.

There is no question that Republicans as a political party dominate the Legislature. They hold 63 of 70 seats in the House of Representatives and 31 of 35 seats in the Senate. But that numerical superiority hasn’t held up on issues such as whether to allow carbon-dioxide pipelines, or whether medical-cannabis should be more strictly regulated, or whether state election laws need to be changed, or even whether Republicans should continue to nominate nearly all of their candidates for state constitutional offices at their summer political conventions.

The contributions from PACS this spring showed a distinct pattern in nearly all cases of supporting one bloc of candidates substantially more than the other.

Most of the money from long-established PACs flowed to Republican candidates, both incumbents and challengers alike, who have shown or expressed support for allowing CO2 pipelines and who aren’t making a priority of calling for sweeping changes to election laws. That group gave legislative candidates more than $600,000.

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A much smaller amount of the money from PACs went to those candidates who want to keep CO2 pipelines out of South Dakota, who want tougher restrictions on medical cannabis and whose priorities include changing election laws. That group gave legislative candidates more than $100,000.

Many of the long-established PACs are putting money into trying to dislodge two incumbent Republican senators. One target is Julie Frye-Mueller in the Black Hills-area District 30 that includes Custer, Fall River and part of Pennington counties. She was sanctioned by the Senate for inappropriate behavior toward a legislative employee.

The second target is Tom Pischke in District 25 that includes northern Minnehaha and Moody counties. He openly supported Frye-Mueller and doesn’t go to Senate Republican caucus meetings.

Former legislator Jordan Youngberg is challenging Pischke, while Frye-Mueller faces two Republican opponents in Amber Hulse and Forrest Foster. Many of the longer-established PACs are backing both Youngberg and Hulse.

Many of the same group of established PACs have contributed money to Rep. Stephanie Sauder in her primary battle with Rep. Fred Deutsch for the Senate seat for District 4 that includes parts of or all of Clark, Codington, Deuel, Grant, Hamlin and Roberts counties that’s now held by John Wiik, the new South Dakota Republican chair.

However, several agriculture-production groups’ PACs that chose clear sides in other primaries are hedging in the District 4 Senate contest, giving equal amounts to Sauder and Deutsch. The chiropractors PAC meanwhile gave $1,400 to Deutsch, a retired chiropractor, but also contributed $300 to Sauder, and also gave $300 apiece to District 30 Senate competitors Frye-Mueller and Hulse.

Many PACs from the longer-established group are betting heavily on Brown County Republican chair Katie Washnok in her run against Rep. Carl Perry for the District 3 Senate seat that term-limited Al Novstrup must leave. (Novstrup, a Perry ally, is running for a House seat.)

Many of those longer-established PACs also are favoring Eric Hohman over Rep. Kevin Jensen for the Senate seat opening in District 16 that includes the southern half of Lincoln, Turner and Union counties, where Republican Sen. Jim Bolin is term-limited and retiring.

What’s happening in the Republican primary races this year reflects the internal division that’s already apparent not only within the Legislature but in the broader South Dakota GOP as well. Similar battles for control are under way between Republicans at the county-party level.

Much of the division between South Dakota Republicans during the past decade happened to come at the same time as the rise of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016, losing the White House in 2020, the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol when Congress was confirming the presidential election of Democrat Joe Biden, and Trump’s candidacy again this year.

There have been other dividing forces, too, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where the South Dakota Capitol was split into four distinct zones of whether masks were required, strongly advised, sort of advised, or not required at all. There also was the decision by South Dakota voters to legalize medical cannabis despite opposition from many legislators and Governor Kristi Noem.

Two of South Dakota’s Republicans in Congress, Senator John Thune and Representative Dusty Johnson, had primary challenges during this same period. So did Noem when she ran for re-election as governor two years ago.

South Dakota’s 2022 Republican state convention saw record participation and a strong push by a large faction of delegates who were openly critical of the central committee’s way of doing things, starting with state chair Dan Lederman. Six months later, he didn’t seek another term.

At the 2022 convention, incumbent secretary of state Steve Barnett lost the Republican nomination to challenger Monae Johnson. Barnett became the third in a string of Republicans who held the secretary of state office that oversees South Dakota’s elections for one term but didn’t return for a second.

Marty Jackley meanwhile survived a close contest for the Republican attorney general nomination. Incumbent Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden faced a surprising challenge for his nomination from former state Representative Steven Haugaard, whom Noem had just defeated in the primary; Noem took the unusual step of an incumbent governor having to deliver the speech appealing to convention delegates to let her keep her running mate.

Since then, Noem stepped up her push to be Trump’s 2024 running mate. Remarks she made at a Trump rally in Rapid City last year were taken by some as public criticism of the state’s three Republicans in Congress, who didn’t attend.

The differences between the two blocs of Republican legislative candidates are clearest this spring in the Senate primaries. One bloc, which is heavily backed by many more PACs, has more incumbents than the other. (The full list of candidates is on the South Dakota Secretary of State website.)

The more-incumbents group includes current senators Casey Crabtree, Sydney Davis, Jean Hunhoff, Erin Tobin, Randy Deibert, David Johnson and Michael Walsh, as well as hopefuls Washnok, Sauder, former Rep. Mark Willadsen, Hohman, Steven Roseland, Youngberg, Susan Peterson, Rep. Kirk Chaffee, Hulse and Jacob Green. Many of them have been supportive of the governor on many issues.

The fewer-incumbents group includes current senators Frye-Mueller and Pischke, as well as hopefuls Perry, Deutsch, Rick Weible, Joy Hohn, Jensen, Jeffrey Church, Lauren Nelson, Mykala Voita, Mark Lapka, former Rep. Sam Marty, John Carley, Kate Crowley-Johnson and former Rep. Taffy Howard (who openly criticized the direction of the Republican Party at the 2022 convention.) Generally, with some exceptions, they have been to varying degrees less supportive of the governor on some issues.

KELOLAND News looked at how each PAC was spending this spring. (Click on the PAC to see its pre-primary report and the amount listed next to it for a list of recipients.)

PACs generally supporting the more-incumbents bloc of candidates include:

Contractors $34,750

COTEL $11,850

Credit Unions $11,470

Dakota Conservative (Sen. Erin Tobin) $3,500

Dusty Johnson $25,750

Greater Sioux Falls Chamber $7,750

Leading South Dakota $15,250

Maypac $27,600

Mort (Rep. Will Mortenson) $48,271.46

Rural Electrification $15,000

Bankers $27,500

Chiropractors $26,100

Educators $71,000

Ethanol producers $55,500

Second Century $8,000

Six-PAC (beer industry) $14,250

Healthcare association $29,550

Dentists $12,250

Physical therapists $4,750

Pork producers $13,750

Realtors $100,500 (includes contributions to non-legislative candidates)

Retailers $35,550

Medical association $16,400

South Dakota Strong (Sen. Lee Schoenbeck) $46,000

Soy producers $9,525

Triple R $30,000

Xcel Energy $4,600

PACs generally supporting the fewer-incumbents group of legislative candidates include:

Liberty Tree (Rep. Scott Odenbach) $47,000

Protecting SD Kids $37,000

Freedom Caucus $16,100

Honest Leadership (former Rep. Drew Dennert) $13,150

Right to Life $11,600

Thin Red Line (Rep. Brandei Schaefbauer) $2,200 (includes contribution to non-legislative candidate)

Several committees drew in large donations but hadn’t yet made contributions to candidates; instead, chunks of the money collected went to purposes such as advertising, data acquisition and purchasing voter-registration rolls. They included Ag Leaders (Rep. Drew Peterson), Dakota First Action (including a $100,000 contribution from Tony Doeden) and South Dakota Strong Leadership (using money transferred from a Noem federal fundraising committee.) Another was one of the PACs that Senate candidate Rick Weible opened, Save South Dakota.

To see all of the 2024 pre-primary reports filed by legislative candidates and PACs go here and click on “Search for a committee.”

Written by: The Dam Rock Station

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