The next hotly contested election in Sioux Falls could be the one to lead the Minnehaha County Republican Party.
The GOP group for South Dakota’s largest county hit the spotlight this week with its decision to boycott traditional legislative forums sponsored by the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and hold its own at the same time.
The county party’s leadership includes many outspoken conservative activists. Several of its top figures, including chairwoman Lora Hubbel and parliamentarian Daniel Willard, have clashed with established Republican officials including Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Its decision to compete with the Chamber-sponsored forums drew cold shoulders from many local Republican officials and a rebuke from the statewide Republican Party.
Now some GOP lawmakers are talking about getting more involved with the party’s operations — something they haven’t always taken the time to do.
“We’re all busy. We all have lots of conflicts,” said state Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls, who noted that “organizations are run by those who show up.”
Since the legislative forum announcement this week, Johnston said, he has had “more than a dozen people call me and email me and tell me maybe it’s time I show up.”
Johnston lives in Lincoln County, and so wouldn’t be eligible to vote in the Minnehaha County GOP elections. But his sentiments are mirrored by other lawmakers who do live in Minnehaha County.
State Sen. Tim Rave, R-Baltic and the outgoing chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, said he’s heard a few people express “renewed interest in the process of county party activity.”
Things could come to a head in the early afternoon on Jan. 26, when the county’s central committee meets to elect a new chair.
Hubbel, an outgoing state representative, isn’t going to be a candidate.
She said she welcomes renewed interest from Republican lawmakers, who have voting rights on the county party’s central committee.
But she doubted an establishment-backed candidate could win an election as chair, predicting another conservative activist would succeed her.
The central committee Minnehaha County Republican Party is made up of a man and a woman from each precinct in the county, plus elected Republican legislators and Minnehaha County officials.
The precinct representatives are elected every two years in Republican primaries.
Not all the precinct committeeman and committeewoman spots are full but the incomplete roster has 71 people.
Elected officials bring the total number of voting members up to about 100, though some legislators such as Rave and Sen.-elect David Omdahl are also elected precinct committee-people in their own right.
The Jan. 26 meeting will take place after the dueling legislative coffees, the Chamber-sponsored one at the Holiday Inn City Centre and the party-sponsored event at the Ramada Hotel & Suites.
It’s the first of four legislative coffees for each group, all on the same days at the same times.
But state Rep. Manny Steele said that might also be the last legislative coffee hosted by the county this year.
Steele, a vocal defender of the county party’s decision to break off and hold its own forums, said the party might end up cancelling the last three events.
“I really doubt there’s going to be any extra legislative coffees put on by the Minnehaha County (GOP),” Steele said. “I would assume they’re going to have the first one.”
Renting rooms and holding question-and-answer sessions is expensive and hard work, Steele said. He argued the party’s announcement helped get “the message across” about the party’s concerns that the crowds and moderation at the Chamber-sponsored legislative coffees were too liberal.
Hubbel, however, didn’t see the party backing down.
“I think once people realize more about it… then they’ll come on board,” she said. “They just get a little bit of information and get scared that there’s something different here, even though they’ve been complaining about (the Chamber forums) for years. Once they realize that (the party forums) was not anything bizarre, it’ll be welcome.”