Republicans retake commanding supermajorities in both legislative chambers
The number of uncontested seats prior to Election Day had left little doubt around the expected Republican supermajorities in each chamber. However, final tabulations showed slight movement in each chamber, as well as the beginning of trends to watch in the coming decade after the first election under the new legislative maps.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Though overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the state legislature were a foregone conclusion well before polls closed on Tuesday, Nov. 8, the near-final results show a Republican party expanding their House caucus in the coming session while losing one seat in the Senate.
Including only the decided races, the House count currently sits at 62 Republicans and five Democrats.
According to the secretary of state’s website, as of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, three races sat near the margin that could potentially allow a recount under state law.
In District 15 in downtown Sioux Falls, Democrat Kadyn Wittman leads Republican Joni Tschetter by 97 votes; in District 18 in Yankton, Republican Julie Auch leads incumbent Democrat Ryan Cwach by 155 votes; and in District 28A in rural West River, incumbent Democrat Oren Lesmeister leads Republican Ralph Lyon by 43 votes.
If, as is likely, these nominal leads hold after a recount, the partisan split in the House would read 63 Republicans and seven Democrats, meaning the GOP would have retained their House supermajority and gained one seat compared to the last legislative session.
“The candidates I visited with across the state, they were working for the vote,” Becky Drury, a Republican representative from Rapid City, said of the party’s performance in the House. “I don't think they sat around and just expected to win, they all went out and worked for it.”
On the other side, every Senate seat has been called, showing a Democratic caucus expanding their membership by one seat with a pickup in Sioux Falls, though Republicans still retain their overwhelming numbers in that chamber with 31 Republicans to four Democrats.
One widely-watched Senate seat was District 26, whose election was turned on its head just days before Nov. 8 by child abuse charges stemming from molestation allegations against Republican candidate Joel Koskan. After votes were tabulated, Democrat Shawn Bordeaux won the contest over Koskan with 58% of the electorate.
The seat was previously held by retiring Democrat Troy Heinert.
“At the legislative level, Democrats held their own,” Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat who won re-election in District 15 in Sioux Falls, said. “We picked up one seat in the Senate, and we lost one seat in the House. So we're basically where we've been for the last two years.”
One interesting race that, while not close enough for a recount, shows potential for competitive elections over the next decade under the new legislative map is District 32 in the northern part of Rapid City. Democrat Christine Stephenson, a school board member in the city, lost to Drury by just over 130 votes.
“I do think that is a place where we can we win in the future. And I hope Christine Stephenson runs again two years from now,” Nesiba said.
Despite that ray of hope in Rapid, Republicans appeared to fortify their strongholds in the rural swaths of the state. In District 1, a relatively competitive district in terms of the partisan split, Democratic veteran Susan Wismer, who served in the Senate and made a run for governor in 2014, lost her race to Senator Mike Rohl 59% - 41%.
One potential reason for the erosion of competitiveness in rural South Dakota floated by candidates across the aisle is the social messaging of national Democrats. Lesmeister, who squeaked by in a rural district pending the potential of a recount, said one part of his victory was emphasizing his understanding of rural issues as someone with deep roots in the area.
"I didn't separate myself totally from the D.C. Democrats, but I don't fully align with their platform, either. And that's just a rural way of life, I guess," Lesmeister said. "So when I talk to a lot of my constituents out here in the district, our views align even though we're Democrat or Republican."
In District 18, the only flipped House seat for Republicans, Auch credited her win to a national and state party out of touch with the needs of South Dakotans.
“We are a conservative state and we don't like the wokeism attitudes,” Auch said. “We are not interested in the Green New Deal. We understand that you have to have electricity and fuel to farm. We're an agricultural state.”