Changing political turf in South Dakota upends races ahead of the 2022 elections
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.
HILL CITY, S.D. — A billboard just outside this Black Hills town bears a curious slogan for a Republican incumbent.
"I support Gov. Krsti Noem," reads the sign for Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Republican who lives near Sheridan Lake.
In any normal year, a Republican running in a GOP-primary for a popular conservative governor might not get much headway stating the presumably obvious.
But after the 2022 session, when the GOP ranks split into factions of varying visions of conservative policy — from fights over vaccine mandates to public spending on affordable housing — supporting the sitting governor is no longer a safe assumption.
"I'm running against Julie Frye Muller, and she supports [Rep.] Steve Haugaard," Goodwin told Forum News Service on Tuesday, March 29. Haugaard is Noem's uber-conservative GOP primary challenger. "I support the governor. She's a rock star... and we don't always agree on every issue. But I'm not an obstructionist."
With the close of the combustible 2022 legislative session, the state's long-ruling majority party — Republicans hold northward of 90% of the seats in Pierre — are at their most powerful and perhaps most precarious position as ideological in-fighting has risen into plain view.
Now, as eyes turn to fast-approaching elections, there will be a chance to peer at the future of South Dakota.
The June primary races will be the first using newly drawn political district maps. They'll also be the first elections for state office since the pandemic, during which South Dakota was portrayed as a safe house for inbound migration of Americans from blue states weary of COVID-19-related restrictions.
“They’re coming here because they want to be like us,” Gov. Kristi Noem boasted during her state of the state address .
There's some evidence this is more than just storytelling. In 2021, United Van Lines again counted South Dakota in the top four of “moving in” states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, South Dakota ranked 10th in the nation in fastest percentage-wise growth between April 2020 and July 2021 at 0.9% (or roughly just over 8,000 people).
But it's not yet clear what, if any, impact these newcomers will have on the state's political future.
"I have a couple of Realtor friends who have assured me that it is real, that people are moving here," said Christine Stephenson, a former school board member in Rapid City who is running for the House of Representatives.
But even those who moved to South Dakota from California or New Jersey after buying a house sight unseen because they loved Noem, Stephenson says, will find the local fights a far cry from what plays on national cable news.
Stephenson grew up in Rapid City and, if elected, would be the first Democrat to represent the city in decades. She says residents are concerned about tabletop issues, such as education, affordable housing, nursing care, as well as issues important to Indigenous residents on the city's north side.
"I think people see what's happening with the Republican Party in Pierre, and they're kind of turned off by it," Stephenson said.
At the same time, she recognizes the terrain — even in a town she knows well — could hold surprises for her.
"This is my service to my town," Stephenson said. "I hope I win. But if we don't, I hope at least we don't get run out of town."
A movement or a blip?
Inbound migration can influence local partisan communities, experts say. Political scientists and demographers pointed to movement from northern cities to the South, particularly among Black voters, for Democratic breakthroughs in Georgia in 2020.
South Dakota State University political science professor David Wiltse said there's some evidence that long-term resettlement in and around Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, by retired law enforcement officers from Los Angeles transformed Republican politics in the region, but the change happened more gradually.
He's skeptical it's happening here.
"In the end, I think it's a talking point with a few nice-looking families propped up as evidence," Wiltse said in an email. "This particular talking point lends itself nicely to the forum of 280 characters or less," the length of a tweet.
In the middle of the pandemic-stricken year of 2020, Jennifer Elia moved with her husband and four children from New Jersey to central South Dakota. She told FNS she'd never been west of Pittsburgh, but came to South Dakota on a vacation.
On their return trip east, they decided to move.
“My business was going to be really difficult to do locked down, and the economy is tanked, and we can’t work,” Elia said. The East Coast real estate agent said she felt different in rural Sanborn County, South Dakota.
"Just the atmosphere," she said. "In New Jersey, there's always breathing down your neck."
Newspapers, political speeches, and glossy magazines have been filled with similar stories over the last two years. But, so far, any political movement from the state's new residents has been fledgling.
Last November, a group calling themselves Blue State Refugees successfully sued Noem in federal court to access Statehouse grounds for a protest of vaccine mandates. But bills backing such prohibitions on employer vaccine requirements fizzled in the state Legislature.
Candidates opposed to mask mandates and other pandemic-related programs won high-profile elections to the Rapid City school board last summer .
But one member who moved from Kentucky, Breanna Funke, would resign her seat within months .
"At this point I think it would be nearly impossible to track these 'liberty' voters," Wiltse observed. "We've not had any state level elections to look at just yet."
Beyond the seats of power, there's also talk in South Dakota's cities and farming and ranching towns that, well, not everyone who has moved to the state is a card-carrying member of the GOP.
Emily Berry, who grew up in what she calls a "liberal bubble" in Vermont but now lives in Rapid City, recounted a tense interaction she had with a stranger in line at a craft store who had recently moved to South Dakota and was praising Noem and dissing coastal Americans.
"This person seemed to think they'd moved to a monolithic conservative hotbed, where everybody was going to agree with them," Berry said.
Berry said she usually prides herself on biting her tongue, but when the woman turned to her looking for concurrence in her rant, Berry replied curtly.
"If you think that blatant racism toward the people who this land was stolen ... then I'm glad you found your brand of sanity," Berry said.
If the political landscape in South Dakota morphs over the next several months, it'll most likely happen because of redistricting, which has caused a traffic jam of primary fights on the Republican side.
At the start of April, there are competitive GOP primaries in more than 20 House districts and over a dozen Senate districts. In many cases, they are battles between moderate and far-right conservatives.
The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol remains animating for some candidates.
Logan Manhart, a GOP candidate in the state's northeast corner, has declined to talk about his attendance in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. Pat Baumann, of Custer, who is part of a five-way GOP primary, boasted of his trip to D.C. on 1/6 in his campaign announcement , saying he traveled to be part of a "great awakening."
Reached by phone, Baumann declined an interview until questions were emailed to him, saying he didn't trust "mainstream media" and couldn't access Forum News Service content behind a paywall.
Encouraged to pay for the content, Baumann said, "I'm probably not going to subscribe to those papers right now."
In a follow-up email, Baumann noted that so long as Americans have a voice, they will use it to push back against "government overreach at ALL levels."
He also reported that he'd met "countless newcomers to the Black Hills" over the last year and a half.
If all politics are local, however, at some point attention will gravitate back toward property tax relief, roads and bridges, and maybe symbolic resolutions about everything from the legacy of Indian boarding schools to fossil fuels.
"Everyone wants to talk to you about national politics," said Goodwin, the state representative from Sheridan Lake. "But I tell them, I'm a state guy. I can't get you in touch with CNN or Fox or whatever your channel of preference is."
But he just might know somebody who could.