Ben Nesselhuf resigns as Democratic Party chair (updated)

Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party since 2011, has resigned to run an Iowa congressional campaign.

Nesselhuf, a former state legislator and candidate for secretary of state, was a full-time and aggressive chairman. Normally the party chair is a volunteer position filled by a local activist, while the executive director is a paid staff position who handles the day-to-day work. Nesselhuf filled both roles and drew a salary.

South Dakota Democrats didn’t have much success in the 2012 election, though it wasn’t for lack of trying by Nesselhuf. He centralized the party’s legislative campaigns to an unprecedented degree, running each candidate’s direct mail operations for them to promote a coordinated — and frequently sharp-elbowed — message. When Democrats failed to gain seats, Republicans said it reflected a backlash to the negative campaigning Nesselhuf led; Democrats said things would have been worse without the party’s efforts.

Now Nesselhuf will go to northwest Iowa to run the U.S. House campaign of military veteran Jim Mowrer, who is challenging long-time Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

In South Dakota, at least in the interim, Democrats will split the party chair and executive director roles again. Vice-chair Deb Knecht of Houghton will be the interim chair, while deputy director Zach Crago will be interim executive director. It’s unclear what direction the party will go for a long-term solution.

Nesselhuf’s departure comes shortly after Tony Post, the executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, also resigned. Post, a native Minnesotan who moved to South Dakota for the executive director job, will stay in the state to work for the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm. 

Also recently, two of the Democrats’ three 2012 statewide candidates left South Dakota. U.S. House candidate Matt Varilek accepted a federal appointment that will require him to relocate to Denver, while Public Utilities Commission candidate Matt McGovern will move to Washington, D.C. to search for work.

More departures: Mitch Fargen, the former state representative Nesselhuf beat to become party chair, also recently moved out of South Dakota. He’s now in California with his girlfriend, Erin McCarrick — the executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party until Nesselhuf took over the role.

The news of Nesselhuf’s departure was first reported by the Des Moines Register. My colleague Jonathan Ellis is covering the story today, so follow his blog for more information.

Purity vs. pragmatism on Obamacare

My story in this morning’s paper took a look at an interesting question about governing styles: is it right for a lawmaker to try to get money for their state from a program they oppose?

South Dakota’s two Republican members of Congress, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem, say yes. They’re both highly critical of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and have voted against it and to repeal it on numerous occasions.

Both of them wrote letters supporting a Rapid City nonprofit’s application for a grant under the Affordable Care Act, and both said there was nothing wrong or contradictory about that.

“I see no conflict whatsoever in seeking fair treatment for South Dakotans under existing law, and still being opposed to the law and seeking to overturn it,” Noem said.

It didn’t make it into the article, but I asked Noem about a debate in the House lately, when top GOP leadership proposed repealing part of the health care law. Some conservative lawmakers revolted, saying that bill would work against the cause of repealing the entire law by making it slightly less onerous — and that voting to repeal only part of it could be seen as tacitly endorsing the rest.

Noem said she doesn’t agree with that approach.

"My job right now is damage control on that bill," she said. "My preference obviously is to repeal it. (But) I have voted for bills before that have removed damaging portions of it."

Not everyone agrees. A curious alliance of conservative activists and Democrats said Thune and Noem were being contradictory or hypocritical by seeking money for their state under the law they opposed.

“I guess (they are) trying to have it both ways,” (South Dakota Democratic Party chairman Ben) Nesselhuf said. “This is further evidence that Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act is largely a political ploy.”

It’s a demonstration of one of the biggest cross-sectional divides in politics, between purity and pragmatism. You see this on the GOP side with the activists who are upset at Mike Rounds, an avowedly pragmatic Republican. (I’ve even started seeing some conservatives use “pragmatic” as a pejorative.) You saw it on the Democratic side with the liberal activists upset at Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, whose defenders also praised her pragmatism.

While there’s some correlation between the pragmatism-purity axis and the moderate-radical axis, they’re not identical.

If you’re pragmatic, you’re more willing to make compromises on what you believe (whether those beliefs are liberal, conservative or moderate) in order to get things done. A pragmatic believes making those compromises lets them accomplish their goals step-by-step, and makes success more likely than an all-or-nothing approach.

A purist sees compromising your beliefs to get things done as the worst thing you can do, as betraying those beliefs. They believe that if they stay true to their ideals, they’ll ultimately win out and succeed, while compromises to get a little bit of what you want usually end up backfiring and hurting your cause.

What do you think? Did Thune and Noem do the right thing by being pragmatic about the Affordable Care Act and helping their constituents with it, or should they have been pure and rejected money for their state because they opposed the bill?

Herseth Sandlin having ‘serious conversations’ about Senate run

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate and plans to make her decision in the next few weeks, she told the Argus Leader this past weekend.

Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat who represented South Dakota in the U.S. House from 2004 through 2011, said she’s getting “encouragement” to run from both South Dakotans and national Democrats and is “still trying to make what’s going to be a very hard decision.”

She moved to Sioux Falls last year to work as a senior executive at Raven Industries. With her husband Max Sandlin, a former Texas congressman, she has a young son, Zachary.

Those personal and work factors are weighing heavily, Herseth Sandlin said.

“I’m really loving my work at Raven Industries,” she said. “I’m loving my family life in Sioux Falls, and the more time I get to spend with family and friends in South Dakota — and how important that is for Zachary.”

But Herseth Sandlin said she “will always have a desire to serve” and is taking people’s encouragement to run for office again to heart.

“I’ve been having some serious conversations with trusted friends, close family, some of the folks I’m currently working with,” she said. “I know that regardless of what the decision is going to be, I’m going to disappoint some folks. So I’ve got to make the decision I think is right for my family and me at this time. I’ve been starting to have more of those conversations over the last couple of weeks and will continue to have them.”

Political scientist Jon Schaff of Northern State University said Herseth Sandlin’s comments sound like someone who’s already thought through many of the issues.

“My suspicion is the questions about party and family have already been thought about and she’s decided what she’s going to do,” Schaff said. “If she puts it that way, that suggests she’s leaning strongly towards running.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement last month after nearly 18 years in the Senate, creating an open seat.

One Republican, former Gov. Mike Rounds, is already in the race. Other Republicans have said they’re considering a run for the seat, while Rep. Kristi Noem — who beat Herseth Sandlin in 2010 — has refused to rule out a challenge.

On the Democratic side, in addition to Herseth Sandlin, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson is widely rumored to be considering a run for Senate. The son of Tim Johnson, Brendan Johnson has refused to comment about politics, citing his current position. But supporters have waged an aggressive movement trying to “draft” him into the race.

Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said he’s convinced Democrats won’t face a primary for U.S. Senate.

“We’re blessed to have so many great candidates,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day, they understand that our efforts are better spent defeating the Republicans with whom we have very major disagreements, as opposed to spending resources and time fighting with each other.”

Herseth Sandlin said she would prefer “to take all the time in the world to make that decision,” but that she feels a certain amount of urgency, especially “since Sen. Johnson’s announcement that he’s retiring.”

"I know that for the benefit of a lot of (Democratic activists) who are energized and want to get out there and get behind a whole slate of candidates, the sooner the folks can make decisions and we can recruit other candidates in other races, the better," she said. "I’m hoping to make that decision in the upcoming weeks.”

Schaff said entering the race sooner would have benefits for Herseth Sandlin.

“Could she possibly get out in front of Brendan Johnson and create some news and start officially raising money before he does?” he said. “There is at least some level of urgency.”

Statements on Johnson’s retirement

First, Johnson’s own statement:

Today we are in our hometown, to close a circle that began 36 years ago when the people of Clay and Union Counties opened their hearts and homes to us when I ran for the state legislature. I am honored and humbled that you and the people of South Dakota—Democrats, Republicans and Independents—have allowed me to represent you in the state legislature, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. You have supported me in multiple elections, and, more importantly, your patience and prayers enabled me to recover from a life -threatening brain injury.

I will be 68 years-old at the end of this term and it is time for me to say good-bye. I will not be running for re-election to the United State Senate in 2014 or any other office. I look forward to serving the remaining two years as the country is facing difficult times on many fronts and I will work every day to find a bipartisan solution to these challenges.

Barb and I want to thank all of the members of Team Johnson who work long hours, every day, to make government responsive to the needs of our citizens and to develop policies that serve South Dakota and America. You are extraordinary and always will be members of our family.

The Bible says that there is a time for every season under heaven. It is now our season to spend more time with our six grandchildren and in the state we love.

God Bless South Dakota. God Bless America. 

President Barack Obama:

For more than three decades, Tim Johnson has dedicated himself to improving the lives of South Dakota’s working families. From his early days in the state legislature to his distinguished career in the Senate, Tim has worked tirelessly to protect our environment, empower rural and Native American communities, and build a financial system that is better able to serve the American people. Always a fighter, Tim’s return to the Senate floor after a life-threatening brain injury was a powerful moment and his recovery continues to inspire us all. I look forward to working with Senator Johnson as he finishes his third term, and Michelle and I join the people of South Dakota in wishing Tim, Barbara, and their entire family all the best. 

2014 Senate candidate Mike Rounds:

I thank Tim for his many years of public service to our state and I wish him and Barb the very best. Although we’ve disagreed on policy over the years, I’ve always respected Tim for his hard work on behalf of South Dakota.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard:

Through eight years in the state Legislature, 10 years in the U.S. House, and 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Tim Johnson has always worked hard for our state. I congratulate Senator Johnson and wish him and Barb well in retirement.

South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ben Nesselhuf:

Senator Tim Johnson always shied away from the limelight, keeping his head down and working hard for South Dakota. Whether he was fighting for family farms, rural water systems, or renewable energy and economic development, Johnson delivered without pomp, and that’s why South Dakotans trusted him for so many years to do the people’s work in Washington. He’ll long be remembered for the huge impact he made on every one of us here in South Dakota.

SD politicians’ March Madness picks

Here’s a confession: college sports have never been my thing. I went to a small, D-III school, as did everyone in my immediate family and much of my extended family. So I’ve got no real loyalties to any university athletics. Generally I prefer to watch pro sports.

So I won’t be filling out a bracket this year. I wouldn’t have much more to go on other than seedings and mascots, and I don’t want to be that guy.

But the people I interview and write about on a daily basis have no such weaknesses. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Sen. Tim Johnson, Rep. Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune have all filled out brackets for the men’s basketball tournament, and all agreed to release them so I — and, more importantly, you, the reader — could take a look at them.

Spoiler: They all think the SDSU men are going to do well. Some even think the Jackrabbits are going to do REALLY well.

Not only did all four top leaders pick the Jackrabbits to upset better-seeded Michigan in the Round of 64, but all of them also picked SDSU to win in the Round of 32 over Virginia Commonwealth University.

The four combined to pick three different national champions. No one team was picked by all of them to reach the Final Four.

Below are their brackets — plus a few more bonus brackets.

UPDATE: Drue Aman, an Argus Leader Sports copy editor, was kind enough to send over his analysis of the brackets.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard


Daugaard stuck with the home state team for a few rounds, but even South Dakota’s governor doesn’t think SDSU can beat the number one-seeded Kansas team — Daugaard’s pick to win it all, over Duke.

AMAN: A couple upsets (namely No. 4 St. Louis over No. 1 Louisville, No. 6 Butler over No. 2 Miami) coincide with the theme of parity this college basketball season. Not too outlandish of a bracket, however, as three No. 1 seeds and No. 2 Duke comprise the Final Four. South Dakota State also wins two games in this bracket. Are the mathematical odds due for a No. 13 to reach the Sweet Sixteen? Maybe. It’s happened four times since 1985.

Sen. Tim Johnson


South Dakota’s senior senator, on the other hand, has no problems seeing the boys from Brookings toppling Kansas — or Indiana, or mighty top-seeded Louisville. Johnson’s bracket has SDSU winning it all.

AMAN: This bracket says a couple things: 1) The folks charged with assigning seeds know exactly what they’re doing (Aside from Michigan State, South Dakota State and Minnesota, no upset picks in the bracket); 2) We’ve seen but a small sample of just how good SDSU is. Maybe so, but the Jacks are obvious long-shots. About 300:1 to win their region of the bracket, according to Las Vegas.

Rep. Kristi Noem


If you get a sense of déja vu looking at Noem’s bracket, you’re not alone. Like Daugaard, she has Kansas as the eventual champions, beating SDSU in the regional semifinals. Unlike Daugaard, Noem thinks Louisville will be the runner-up. (Noem, it’s worth noting, is the only SDSU alum of the bunch — Daugaard, Johnson and Thune all went to USD.)

AMAN: New Mexico’s selection as a Final Four team makes sense when considering how rare all four No. 1 seeds play that deep into the tournament (only time: 2009). Four 11 and 12 seeds (Bucknell, Minnesota, Oregon and Belmont) reach the Sweet 16 in this bracket which, though unlikely, more than one traditionally make it that far. South Dakota State beating Michigan and Virginia Commonwealth before falling to Kansas would do untold things for the Jackrabbits’ program, if what Noem predicts comes true.

Sen. John Thune


Hoops-mad Thune went with Noem and Daugaard in seeing the Jackrabbits falling to Kansas. But KU won’t go too much further if Thune’s bracket proves right — they’ll beat Georgetown but then lose to Miami, who will in turn fall to ultimate champion Louisville.

AMAN: Two No.1’s and two No.2’s for a Final Four should augur well for accuracy (it appears Thune began writing Duke to beat Louisville in the Midwest regional final before changing his pick, which in the long history of my bracket-filling days, I can relate to a miserably great deal). Overall, a safe bracket with an agreeable amount of upset picks and the tournament’s top seed (Louisville) winning it all. I believe I saw Thune verbally place SDSU in the Final Four, also?

Not enough for you? Here’s a few other brackets from the people who’ve responded to my requests so far:

First Lady Linda Daugaard


While her husband tempered his Jackrabbit fandom by picking Kansas, First Lady Linda Daugaard sees SDSU going all the way — over Creighton.

State Senate Minority Leader Jason Frerichs


Surprisingly, proud SDSU alum Frerichs has the Jackrabbits exiting earlier in the tournament than any of the statewide leaders. Does that say more about knowledge of basketball or knowledge politics? Frerichs sees SDSU beating Michigan but losing to VCU. Louisville wins it all, over Georgetown.

South Dakota Democratic Party chairman Ben Nesselhuf


Nesselhuf also sees SDSU losing in the Round of 32 to VCU. (I’d say it was something in the Democratic water, but Tim Johnson had the Jackrabbits going all the way.) He’s another Louisville pick, over Kansas.

Argus Leader managing editor Patrick Lalley


Can you tell which one of these amateur bracketologists isn’t a politician? Maybe the man who picks a quick exit for the Jackrabbits in their first game. My boss Patrick Lalley sees Michigan beating SDSU and VCU, only to lose to Kansas. He also tabs Louisville for champs, over Indiana.

I’ve asked a few more South Dakota politicians for their brackets; if they come in, I’ll add them to the list.

Democrats launch ‘smart safety’ website against HB 1087

A new website,, seeks to galvanize public opinion against House Bill 1087, the so-called “school sentinels” bill to allow districts to arm volunteer defenders.

"Guns in school may be coming to your community if radical Republicans have their way. The South Dakota House passed a bill to put more guns in the hands of school teachers, janitors, or other school personnel," the website declares.

Is this a grassroots backlash against House Republican overreach?


The bottom of the website declares it’s paid for by “The Majority Project.”

If you visit South Dakota’s campaign finance website, you’ll find that’s a political action committee run by Ben Nesselhuf, who just happens to be the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Nesselhuf blasts Rounds

No honeymoons in politics these days. Twenty-six minutes after Rounds’ campaign announcement comes this release from South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ben Nesselhuf:

Governor Mike Rounds is a nice guy with the wrong priorities for the U.S. Senate. Rounds clamored for hundreds of millions in stimulus dollars to mask his record of deficit spending, oversaw explosive growth in state government, and abused state resources for personal gain. What legacy did he leave for the state of South Dakota? A broken corporate giveaway program, a new Governor’s mansion, and a $127 million budget deficit in 2011. Senator Tim Johnson has delivered for the state of South Dakota. Governor Mike Rounds has not.


Governor Mike Rounds is challenging Senator Tim Johnson for his Senate seat in 2014. Senator Tim Johnson has never lost an election in his political career starting in the South Dakota state house in 1979. He has defeated Republican titans, including Senators Larry Pressler and John Thune.

Johnson has yet to declare whether he’s seeking reelection.

Dem group sends voters to wrong polling place (updated)

Secretary of State Jason Gant just released a statement warning voters about mailings from a third-party group with wrong information about where to vote.

Correct information about your polling place is available at You can also vote absentee at your county auditor’s office until 3 p.m. on Election Day.

The mailers have been confirmed from a group called Every Vote Counts. According to campaign finance reports, that group’s chairman is South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ben Nesselhuf.

Gant says Nesselhuf admitted sending the wrong information and is “attempting to contact those voters with the correct information.”

The mailings were confirmed as sent to voters in Stanley and Pennington counties.

It’s unknown whether those incorrect mailings were sent to Democratic leaners (in which case probably an embarrassing mistake) or Republican leaners (in which case it sure looks like electoral chicanery).

UPDATE: Reached by phone, Nesselhuf said the mailings went out to Democrats.

"It’s our people," Nesselhuf said. "It’s all Democrats and Democratic leaners."

Nesselhuf said the group sent out “several thousand” mailings and that around 5 percent of them had incorrect information. He blamed a computer program error for the problem.

"We are bombarding those poor people with phone calls now trying to correct it," he said.

The recipients of the mailing campaign were about 80 percent Democrats, 19 percent independents and a “smattering of Republicans,” Nesselhuf said.

Nesselhuf said Democrats first discovered the problem Saturday morning when a recipient emailed them.

"Considering it’s Democrats (receiving the mailers), most of the folks emailing us thought it was Republicans up to something," he said.

Did you get one of these mailings? Send me a scan! Or at least let me know the circumstances in which you got it.

Nesselhuf going soft?

There are certain duties involved in being the public face of a political party — in being what I affectionately term a “professional hack.” Especially in our two-party system, a party spokesman has to keep up a steady barrage of criticism against the people, ideas, movements and bills associated with the other party.

It was in that spirit that I called Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, yesterday to get some brief responses to some of the arguments Sen. John Thune had made at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. These responses, even when shallow and predictable, are important to convey to readers that an authoritative-sounding argument from a politician is actually in dispute, or they might presume that a disputed argument is actually correct.

(The head of the other party is one option to provide those balancing quotes. Another is that politician’s electoral opponent — if I want a response to Rep. Kristi Noem, I used to call Nesselhuf; now I usually call Matt Varilek. Finally there’s the option of an elected official of the other party. Sen. Tim Johnson, however, was otherwise occupied yesterday.)

Nesselhuf didn’t disappoint, ripping Thune’s position on the Bush tax cuts with the usual “millionaires and billionaires” rhetoric. But when I asked about the sequestration cuts happening at the end of the year, he gave a more interesting answer than I expected.

"The far-right fringe of the Republican Party… has been absolutely unwilling to look at any sort of compromise at all," Nesselhuf said. "The reason we’re to this point is because John Thune’s party is being driven by the far right."

Okay, sure. But he went on:

"John Thune is maybe not part of that, but he’s not doing anything to stop it," Nesselhuf said.

When the chairman of the opposing political party upgrades you from extreme radical to fellow-traveler, you know you’re making progress.

Of placeholders and party weakness

The final tally for legislative candidates dropping out stands at 10 Democrats, 2 Republicans and one independent after yesterday’s deadline.

What does that say about South Dakota’s political parties?

Obviously it’s not good for Democrats. Replacing a candidate isn’t disastrous, and can even end up with a party fielding a stronger candidate, but it means having to do your candidate recruitment for a seat twice, and having to introduce a new candidate months after rivals who met the original deadline.

But the biggest message the Democratic dropouts in 2012 sends is historical: that 2010 was a very, very bad year for South Dakota Democrats.

We knew that already, of course, but this is one of those events that drives that home. After the royal shellacking Democrats took in November 2010, being driven out of the Legislature in droves, there aren’t many incumbent Democrats left. That means the Democratic Party has to find challengers to run for the Legislature, which is always harder than convincing incumbents to run again.

Republicans had more incumbents (two) drop out at the deadline than Democrats did (one).

But is Republican Party executive director Tony Post right when he diagnoses a deeper flaw in the SDDP’s strategy?

"We had a ton of people who wanted to run, we had a lot of enthusiasm and engagement on our side, which is why we ended up with a lot of primaries," Post said. "President Obama, unfortunately for the Democrats, is at the top of the ballot. Good candidates are strategic, too. If I’m a good Democratic candidate, do I want to run this year? Probably not."

If Democrats were more bullish, in other words, they’d be lining up to challenge lawmakers. The fact that Democrats didn’t contest some races, and had lukewarm candidates drop out of others, might suggest a lack of enthusiasm.

Ben Nesselhuf, the Democratic Party chair, offered a different interpretation.

"We recruited 70 non-incumbent candidates this cycle, which is almost twice what the Republicans did," Nesselhuf said. "I’m very proud of the effort we put into candidate recruitment… We had bigger holes to fill, but we did a better job of doing it."

Who’s right?

After the jump, the list of all the candidate withdrawals so far, with any replacements.

Read More

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