Nelson hits Gant’s performance

Former secretary of state Chris Nelson criticized the performance of his successor, Jason Gant, hours before state Sen. Shantel Krebs officially declares her candidacy for the job.

"(Krebs) understands we need to restore some trust and integrity in that office, and I’m certainly glad to see that she’s stepping out and willing to make a run for that," said Nelson.

Nelson didn’t mention Gant by name, but his statement about the secretary of state’s office currently lacking “trust and integrity” echoes one levied at Gant by Krebs, among others. Gant has been criticized for allegedly being too political as secretary of state.

Nelson said he hasn’t endorsed Krebs, nor made a decision about whether to endorse in the race. After being term-limited out of the office in 2010, Nelson was appointed to the Public Utilities Commissioner, where he serves after winning a full term in 2012.

But Nelson said he’s had conversations with Krebs in recent months about the office.

"She’s asked some very good questions," Nelson said. "If anybody else on the Republican side has those same kind of questions and is thinking about getting in, I’m certainly willing to be a resource."

Curd, 2010 and appointments

An interesting sidenote to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s appointment of Blake Curd to a state Senate seat: both the losers in the three-way 2010 U.S. House primary have now been appointed to offices by Daugaard. In addition to Curd, Chris Nelson was appointed to the Public Utilities Commission.

(The third, victorious, candidate in that primary, Kristi Noem, hasn’t needed any gubernatorial appointments because she has kept winning and is still in the House of Representatives.)

Efficiency and open government at the PUC

The Public Utilities Commission is asking the Legislature to define what activities they do are subject to open meetings laws — and what is not.

Current law with regards to the PUC and open meetings is short and direct:

Every vote and official action of the Public Utilities Commission shall be entered of record and its proceedings shall be open to the public as prescribed in chapter 1-25.

Senate Bill 223 would change that to read:

Every vote and official action of the Public Utilities Commission shall be entered of record. The proceedings of the Public Utilities Commission are open to the public as prescribed in chapter 1-25 when the Public Utilities Commission is exercising its regulatory or adjudicatory authority pursuant to Title 49

It also adds a new section to follow:

However, the Public Utilities Commission is not subject to the requirements of chapter 1-25 when one or more commissioners are meeting among themselves or staff to discuss the internal management of the Public Utilities Commission regarding such things as:

  1. Planning or developing activities or proposed legislation;
  2. Organizing the internal structure of the Public Utilities Commission;
  3. Selecting, appointing, promoting, removing or managing personnel;
  4. Developing reports; or
  5. Developing budgets and expending funds.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. David Lust and Sen. Corey Brown at the request of the PUC. Is the PUC trying to more some of its activities out of public view?

"Absolutely not," said Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson.

Everything the PUC currently does in public will remain in public, Nelson said. This bill will allow discussions that, he said, currently aren’t taking place.

"I’m thinking, well, I should go to Commissioner Hanson… and ask him about (a recent issue)," Nelson said. "He’s sitting in the room right next to me, the office right next to me. And yet, under today’s rule, I can’t do that. I can’t ask him a simple question."

These conversations have “nothing to do with the official dockets that come before the agency,” he said.

"What this bill does is say that those kind of conversations that aren’t happening today, in order to make us better servants of the people, help to make sure we’re doing the best job we can for the people, that we can in fact have those kind of conversations," he said.

Do you agree this bill would make the PUC more efficient without hurting open government?

Chris Nelson declares victory

He hasn’t received a concession call from Nick Nemec, but Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson just declared victory in a speech at the Republican Party headquarters.

"This morning, I read a quote from a politician in another state. This person said, quote, there is no humble in politics," Nelson said. "Tonight, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. I am incredibly humbled tonight by the confidence the people of South Dakota have placed in me to be their Public Utilities Commissioner for the next four years."

Nelson promised to fight to keep utilities reliable and rates low, but, his voice rising in intensity, promised to do that “without demonizing our utility companies or micromanaging them.”

The Democratic PUC candidates, most prominently Matt McGovern, have harshly criticized Xcel Energy this campaign.

Nelson did have a kind word for Nemec, a farmer.

"My opponent, and tonight I can say his name, Nick Nemec, is passionate about protecting farmers," Nelson said. "I appreciate that about Nick, and I share that."

Right now, with 42 percent of precincts reporting, Nelson leads Nemec 68-32.

"This is a strange feeling. This is the first general election in 22 years that I have not been sitting in the Secretary of State’s office, helping the election returns come in. It’s very, very different for me — and I’m good with it. I’m looking forward to enjoying the night."

— Public Utilities Commissioner and former Secretary of State Chris Nelson

Tags: Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson for PUC ad: Pat Powers flags down a TV commercial Chris Nelson is running. I still haven’t seen any ads from Nelson’s opponent, Nick Nemec.


Narrator: Chris Nelson: a proven leader for South Dakota. As Public Utilities Commissioner, Chris Nelson has been working to keep your electric, telephone and natural gas rates low, and to ensure you have reliable services. When EPA regulations and FCC rules from Washington threaten your utility rates and service, Chris Nelson is working for you. Keep a voice you can trust on the Public Utilities Commission. Keep Chris Nelson working for South Dakota.

Why are the Dems gunning for Chris Nelson?

I was skeptical when an email blast from Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson arrived in my inbox, pleading for money because the state Democratic Party had put “big money into defeating me.”

But it’s true. The South Dakota Democratic Party gave $40,000 to Nick Nemec’s PUC campaign. It brought the race to financial parity — with that $40,000, Nemec raised $57,135 between the June conventions and Friday. Nelson raised $55,505.

Meanwhile, in the other PUC race, Democrat Matt McGovern raised just under $111,000, while Kristie Fiegen raised $106,000 plus $20,000 in in-kind contributions.

The conventional wisdom, suggested by the Nielson Brothers polls and common sense based on the statewide name recognition and popularity of Nelson compared to Fiegen, was that the McGovern-Fiegen race was the winnable one for the Democrats, while Nemec was running as a good soldier to make sure Nelson had a challenger. (This is also known as “scandal insurance.”)

This donation would seem to counteract that conventional wisdom. Surely the Democrats, with limited (though not pathetic) financial resources, would concentrate that money on the two statewide candidates who seem to be in the best shape: McGovern and Matt Varilek. An extra $40,000 could make a big difference in either race.

Is the Nelson seat unexpectedly in play? Or is something else going on here?

Chris Nelson wasn’t throwing Noem under the bus

The widespread coverage about declining a State Fair debate has not been good coverage for Rep. Kristi Noem. (I argued earlier that declining that debate was going to have a minor political cost, and Noem made it worse by the manner in which she did it.) But by far the worst part of the article for Noem is a quote from Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson, who says he didn’t have any concerns about the South Dakota Farmers Union:

“I talked with their representative to understand what the format was. I’m very convinced it’s going to be an open and fair format,” Nelson said. “Again, it’s a good opportunity for us to talk about the issues. I think any candidate ought to be willing to do that.”

As Cory Heidelberger notes, that last sentence seems tailor-made to appear in a Democratic ad (or at least a Democratic attack email). But that wasn’t what Nelson was trying to do.

The article notes that Nelson (and Kristie Fiegen, who gave a similar, but less punchy, reaction) were speaking about their own debates, not about Noem’s decision. 

I called Nelson up and asked about his debate, and then asked if he had had any concerns about accepting given the perception that the Farmers Union is the more progressive of the two big farming organizations. He said he didn’t, and seemed to be in civics class mode, extolling the virtues of small-d democracy — while also taking the chance to show himself above pettier political concerns.

At the time it wasn’t clear what direction the story was going. When I called him back later and told him the focus of the story would be Noem’s decision to decline that debate, I could all but hear Nelson wince over the phone as he remembered what he had said and realized how would sound. But even though I offered him a chance to make additional comments, to his credit, Nelson didn’t try to backpedal or argue that what he REALLY meant was such-and-such.

Nelson’s comments may look bad for Noem, but as I said in the article, he wasn’t trying to hurt Noem — or even thinking about her — at the time he said it.

House race neck-and-neck? Maybe…

The Nielson Brothers are out with a new poll with some… interesting results.

Here’s their headline figures for South Dakota registered voters (not likely voters):

Mitt Romney 49, Barack Obama 43

Kristi Noem 47, Matt Varilek 46

Kristie Fiegen 43, Matt McGovern 41

Chris Nelson 54, Nick Nemec 30

How accurate are these numbers? They’re very favorable to the Democrats. Set aside the absolute numbers, and the relative numbers seem about right with conventional wisdom: Varilek outperforming Obama (which he may or may not do, but has to if he’s going to win), McGovern outperforming Nemec.

Rejecting a poll just because its numbers don’t look right is always risky. Sometimes a poll that looks wrong is wrong. Sometimes preconceptions are wrong. The best way to judge is by comparing to other polls. Unfortunately, we don’t have any comparable matchup polls for South Dakota. What we do have is the Gallup poll from a little bit ago, showing 38 percent of South Dakotans approve of Barack Obama.

That asked about approval, not who people would vote for. How closely do approval numbers track vote preference?

Pretty closely, it seems. Here’s a few national polls with Obama’s approval and support:

Rasmussen, 44% approve, 43% support

Pew, 51% approve, 51% support

Democracy Corps, 50% approve, 50% support

So let’s say, in the absence of more numbers from the Nielson Brothers, that approval and support are equivalent. That means their poll is friendlier to Obama by five points than Gallup. (We shouldn’t necessarily presume that Gallup is the more accurate of the two, but for the sake of this exercise I will.)

If that lean is true across the board, then Varilek’s at 41 percent to Noem’s 52, McGovern’s at 36 percent to Fiegen’s 48 percent, and Nemec is at 25 percent to Nelson’s 59 percent.

This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, so don’t take this too far.

Regardless, being at 41 percent and around 10 points down on Noem at this point in the campaign is actually a pretty decent result for Varilek. That doesn’t mean he can close, but it means he’s within striking distance.

Who knows. We’ve got one data point. I hope Rasmussen or one of the other polling agencies releases some numbers to give us more context.

If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and want to read more about Nielson Brothers Polling, I wrote a very long blog post on them at Mount Blogmore some time ago.

UPDATE: A little more context for people who don’t have enough time to read that linked post. NBP has a relatively short track record as a public pollster. Some of their polls have been pretty close to actual results (such as the 2010 U.S. House race in South Dakota), while others have been way off, including a wacky poll in the 2010 governors’ race. Some Republicans point to Paul Nielson’s history as a Democratic candidate as proof the firm is biased. The Nielson brothers insist they provide accurate results and point out that the other Nielson brother, Mark, is an economist who “leans to the right.”

Searching for politicians

Google has this little feature called “autocomplete,” where if you type in a partial query it will suggest completions for the query, based on “other users’ search activities and the contents of web pages indexed by Google.”

You can read more about how it works here.

This can be amusing, but also interesting: what are other people searching for when they type in a query?

I logged out from my Google account (to avoid getting personalized results) and ran some tests with the names of South Dakota politicians. (It’s worth noting that Google also filters by region; someone searching in, say, California might get different results.) What I found is… interesting, about how well known South Dakota politicians are, how many other people have the same name, and what people care about with their leaders.

Here’s the list:

Dennis Daugaard

  1. deaf
  2. nad
  3. deaf parents

Matt Michels

  1. south dakota
  2. matt michelsen
  3. matt michelson

John Thune

  1. vice president
  2. email
  3. senator

Tim Johnson

  1. sioux falls office
  2. email
  3. senator

Kristi Noem

  1. facebook
  2. voting record
  3. new haircut

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin

  1. raven
  2. 2012
  3. bio

Mike Rounds

  1. senate
  2. kansas city
  3. nancy miller

Matt Varilek

  1. gay marriage
  2. biography
  3. sioux falls

Marty Jackley

  1. wiki
  2. bio
  3. sd attorney general

Jason Gant

  1. sd
  2. impeachment
  3. pat powers

Chris Nelson

  1. south dakota
  2. puc
  3. rockies

Kristie Fiegen

  1. puc
  2. sioux falls
  3. junior achievement

Matt McGovern

  1. south dakota
  2. boston college
  3. mlb draft

Nick Nemec

  1. puc
  2. south dakota
  3. nick nemechek

Ben Nesselhuf

  1. south dakota
  2. sd
  3. secretary state

Tim Rave

  1. south dakota
  2. tim raver
  3. tim raven
Mike Huether
  1. sioux falls
  2. democrat
  3. bio

EDIT: In the comments, “Two for the Road” points out a few I missed:

Tom Daschle

  1. scandal
  2. dla piper
  3. book

Larry Pressler

  1. closet
  2. abscam
  3. gay

A few more from history:

Bill Janklow

  1. manslaughter
  2. funeral
  3. r-murderer

Jim Abdnor

  1. funeral
  2. obituary
  3. dies

Jim Abourezk

  1. south dakota
  2. sioux falls
  3. senator

George McGovern

  1. family
  2. books

A few observations: first, many of these South Dakotans have very poor name recognition. Even Daugaard, the state’s governor, has his results dominated by a brief, localized but intense controversy among a specific subculture earlier this summer. People like Tim Rave and Matt Michels barely register, with suggestions after “south dakota” reflecting other people. Chris Nelson and Matt McGovern share more than just an interest in public utilities: they also have baseball-playing doppelgangers.

Matt Varilek has a lot of interest in his gay marriage position; Jason Gant’s recent controversies dominate his list. A lot of people are curious about Mike Huether’s political affiliation.

Thune, unsurprisingly, has vice presidential speculation at the top of his searches, but both he and Tim Johnson also have a lot of interest in their work as senators. Johnson, unlike Thune and Kristi Noem, has a constituent-service link in his top three (people trying to find his Sioux Falls office). Noem, sadly, has almost as many searches about her new haircut as she does about her voting record. People want to find emails for Thune and Johnson but a Facebook profile for Noem.

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