I grew up in a one party state. I escaped in my early twenties by driving my Ford Maverick across the borders when an ice storm confused the authorities. The one party state was Arkansas, and I can tell you that it was not a model of political excellence.
One party states encourage corruption and diminish the power of the voters to punish it. Voters can rarely get a grasp of the powers that work around the tables, day to day, in their state government offices. When there are two competitive parties, voters can punish large blocks of legislators. With each party hoping to gain on the other in the next election, there is some general incentive for reducing corruption and promoting good government. When there is only one effective party, the worst excesses result in a few individuals taking all the blame. The larger body of scoundrels remains immune to censure.
As state governments go, the Republic of South Dakota is pretty good. Unlike, say, California, there are fewer forces corrupting our legislative chambers and our state house. But we should worry when one of our two great parties seems to be fading faster than tomatoes after the first frost.
Yesterday South Dakota Democrats failed to win a single state wide race. The gubernatorial election was won by a Republican, which happens so often you’d think it’s in the state constitution. The constitutional offices were swept by the GOP. Our lone representative to the U.S. Congress, Representative Herseth Sandlin, lost by a narrow but sufficient margin to her Republican opponent. To her credit, Herseth Sandlin was the only Democrat to win more than 40% of the vote in a state wide race. Our junior U.S. Senator, John Thune, had no opponent. This was the only non-contested Senate race in the nation and the first in the state’s history.
I heard a rumor that the Democrats decided not to field a Senate candidate in order to reduce Senator Thune’s incentive to involve himself in this year’s state politics. I have no idea if that is true, and if it isn’t I apologize for repeating it. If it is true, it’s damning. I mention it because I can’t understand why else they couldn’t find someone, anyone, to run. The uncontested race is a scandal in itself.
If all that weren’t bad enough, the showing of Democrats showing in the state legislative races was worse. Democrats won just 20 out of the 70 seats in the state House of Representatives. I haven’t calculated the vote totals, but that’s less than a third of the House.
It doesn’t get better in the State Senate, where Democrats won just six of thirty five seats. That’s going to stretch those six Senators mighty thin across the Senate committees.
To say that the South Dakota Democratic Party is in disarray is misleading. The problem is not organizational but existential. The party is on the point of going clean out of business. It is effectively dysfunctional. Maybe the State House is beyond their reach, but clearly the House and Senate seats are not. The party is going to need someone to run against Kristi Noem in two years. Tim Johnson is going to retire, sooner or later. In those contests, the Democrats have no bench.
South Dakota needs a viable opposition party. It needs someone like George McGovern to reorganize it, county by county, rebuilding the local party apparatus. Someone like Tom Daschle could have done that. But Daschle, set free by defeat, had neither the time nor the interest for his state or its affairs. What is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin going to do, now that she has time on her hands? I am guessing she is not going to stick around.
There is a tragic flaw in the South Dakota Democrat. The best of that species tend to look beyond our borders for greater things. The voters frequently recognize that, and in an act of grace, set them free. Meanwhile, the party withers. This is not good for Democrats in the state, or for the state itself.