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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

South Dakota Democrats gear up to extend record of losses

South Dakota Democrats are in a great position to extend and deepen their political losses.  They know the secret of discouraging likely supporters.   After the loss in 2010,  Sam Hurst  summarized the party's position:

Let Democrats worry about the fate of the party. It is at rock bottom. It stands for nothing. It has virtually no ability to raise money or mobilize its base to action on behalf of its candidates. It has no influence over politicians elected in its name. It cannot compete. Not forever, not for always, but right now, South Dakota Democrats need leaders who will yell, “Charge!” And it needs soldiers willing to aim their sabers into the fire.
The base in action
The part about mobilizing  the party base is complicated.  I am well acquainted, I guess, with what is termed the base.  I have been a county party officer, a delegate to state conventions, and active in many campaigns for the last couple of decades.  As a county secretary and treasurer,  I watched the list of active members dwindle away as people died and moved elsewhere with hardly any people replacing them.  I have been involved in trying to recruit candidates and in the campaigns and attempts at party support.  I have a perspective on mobilizing the base.  The party may need soldiers willing to aim their sabers,  but the base is clogged with know-it-alls who kibbutz, criticize, and complain, but never engage in any action.   Rather than aim sabers, they tend to whip out their throbbing little egos and give them furious frictional succor while others watch with distaste   A song dedicated to them is, "Your mind is on vacation, but your mouth is working overtime."*

Political campaigns in South Dakota are like fantasy football.  People spend inordinate time and energy exercising what they  presume to be political acumen, but they never engage in the game on the field.  Most of those who pronounce what campaigns need to do have never done the grunt work of retail campaigning.  The problem facing Democrats is not how to convince Republicans and Independents to throw some votes their way; the problem is providing Democrats good reasons not to leave the party. 

Bob Mercer made his monthly report on voter registrations and it notes the trend that has become routine:
As of Aug. 3, Republicans had 243,714, up from 243,173 on July 1. Democrats lost ground, dropping to 175,287 from 175,335. And all others, primarily independents, climbed to 110,749 from 109,742 a month ago.
For each registered Democrat, there are two voters who are not.  And, of course, the big question is, why are Democratic rolls declining each month while others are increasing?  There are many factors.  A huge demographic shift  has been in progress for decades, although loyal South Dakotans don't like to admit it.  It is the brain drain, and it means that people of education, ambition, and a responsible attitude toward society aligned with Democratic policies  do not find South Dakota an economically or culturally viable place to live.  They get out as soon as they can, leaving the state to that brand of conservatism which is actually backwardness.  To see this trend in action, one merely has to ask where recent Democratic candidates for federal offices are now.  A majority found opportunities elsewhere and have become part of the  talent migration.  

But that does not account for why Democrats who stay in the state are leaving the party.  The 2010 election identified a major split in Democratic ranks.  The progressive base found that its stances on health care, the environment, marriage equality and other key issues were sacrificed by those in power in an attempt to appeal to conservative voters.  That's what Sam Hurst was referring to when he said the party stands for nothing.  Progressives felt that the party betrayed them, and many saw no issue-based reason to vote. 

The internal conflicts within the party have not been resolved because up to this time the conflicts have not been openly confronted.  The very nature of politics is to deal with differences and conflicts, but the South Dakota Democrats have shown an inability to engage in the most fundamental dialogue of democratic process.  Rather than engage in respectful and informed dialogue, the party splints into angry factions which tear away at the  party. 

Party leadership has not handled internal disputes and resentments well.  And the ill-feelings that arise from them do spread with lingering effect and drive people away.  An instance I tracked began  at a state convention during the approval of delegates to the national nominating convention.  Delegates from the Sioux Falls area displayed an imperious attitude toward other delegates and pulled some rather hostile, belligerent  maneuvers in the approval of delegates that was like an episode from "Mean Girls."  The Brown County delegates were disappointed, but the real effect showed up four years later. At the county meetings, we found no one really wanted to be a delegate to the state convention or to stand for election to the national delegation.   As a result, the elected delegate from Brown County was a person who never participated in party activities, never offered support, and just showed up to try to wangle her way to the national convention.  No one cared enough to oppose her.  The delegate certainly did not represent the perspective of Brown County Democrats and her performance at the convention was clearly an ego  trip, not an attempt to represent Brown County interests--of which she was apparently unaware.  That chain of events gives important clues as to the decline of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Then when Rick Weiland ran against Mike Rounds for the U.S. Senate, the self-suckers came out like May flies in the spring.  The Democrats had failed to muster a candidate against John Thune (and I attest that it was not for a lack of trying) and some likely candidates declined to run against Rounds.  When Rick Weiland announced his candidacy, Harry Reid made some dismissive comments, but comments coming from inside the state did more to erode potential support.  This comment was posted on a Democratic blog:

Go ahead and have Rick run, he will get beat hands down. I am a Democrat but after what Rick's brother Kevin did to SHS in her last election I have no time of day for that type of candidate.
I repeat what I have said before, most voters are MODERATE and if liberals think that they can win this election with that type of candidate in this day and age they are living in a dream world!
And this comment:
[I refuse] to volunteer for a sure loser. The entire purpose of this campaign is to fire a shot at Stephanie inside the party. Anytime that emotion is stronger than defeating Republicans it's a sure sign of a bad start.
These comments are made in the midst of all the whining about not mounting a candidate against Thune.  It never seems to occur to these self-sucking twits that they are a large part of the reason it is difficult to find candidates.  Qualified, viable candidates make assessments of the kind of support they will get from the party.  Those comments provide a concrete basis for deeming a run for office a waste of time and effort.  You can't win elections when you run against stupid in your own party.  Sam Hurst said the party "cannot compete," and those comments provide evidence as to why.

Rick Weiland ran a model campaign.  Some of the Democrat fantasy game players think that Democrats need to take on the Republicans in kind through personal attacks and false accusations.  But most Democrats understand the difference between examining the political records of opponents and requiring that they account for what they do and don't do. Rick Weiland's campaign went to the people in an exhaustive tour of the state, made an open and honest statement of positions, and brought a level of energy and integrity to the campaign that stands in sharp contrast to the campaigns of Thune and Noem.  Rick lost to Mike Rounds by 20 points, but he established a standard of personal and political integrity that put the Democratic Party on the high road.  Still, within the party, he had to contend with those who  constantly send up a screed of petty, ignorant carping that throws a detrimental shadow over the party.

Another of Sam Hurst's observations is that the Democratic Party  has no influence over the politicians elected in its name.  We witnessed this on the national level when the Blue Dog faction ran counter to the Democratic planks and took positions which split the party and helped lose elections that it shouldn't have.  But the problem affects politics at the local level.  During the time I have held office in the Brown County Democrats, we have been approached by lawyers who run for the county office of State's Attorney. Usually, after we give an initial endorsement, we never hear from them again.  The lawyers as a group raise funds for individual candidates, but never associate or join in with Democratic Party activities.  In one case, the State's Attorney became a vocal opponent of the Democrats because of a disagreement on the women's choice issue.  In another case in which I personally contacted him in  regard to a state agency violating both the law and state policies in a due process matter, he cited a federal law that had no relevance.  But the biggest offense committed by a State's Attorney running on the Democratic Party name was the case that arose out of criminal proceedings involving a foster parent sexually abusing native American children put in his charge.  

The case became alarming when the State's Attorney, Kim Dorsett, ended up firing the deputy state's attorney, Brandon Taliaferro, and filing criminal charges against him and child's advocate, Shirley Schwab, for witness tampering and perjury.  The case was so contrived that the judge threw it out of court, citing internal politics and a lack of evidence to support the charges.  Many of us in the Democratic Party were dismayed that someone who had used the party name would violate the essential principles the party stands for in such a malicious and sordid episode.  We still wonder why no discipline or censure was ever considered for such a violation of the justice system.  It demonstrates that the political party has little power and influence over how its name is used or over a crucial matter of justice and honesty which is an operating principle on which the party is based.  

The attitudes and actions of some of those presumptive "leaders" in the party have driven off  supporters in other ways.  Once when a staff member of a Democratic official chose to characterize a grievance by a labor union as whining, the county party lost the support of the union PAC which had donated in-kind services worth $18,000 in setting up telephone banks for campaigns.  The union decided that having a legitimate issue dismissed as whining indicated that the party was not interested in their issues.

Another incident I witnessed involved a loyal and generous party member who answered a call for help with a mailing.  He asked a question about sorting the letters, and the person who was attempting to organize the work answered with curt and insulting reply.  The man and his spouse soon walked out.  The next day I saw the man and asked if something was wrong,  He said if he wanted to be treated that way, he'd go hang out at the Republican headquarters.  And then he said he wasn't sure he wanted to be associated any longer with a party of assholes.  Shortly after, the  man decided to move to another community, although in previous conversations he had indicated he planned to live in Aberdeen because that is where his friends and associates were.

The Democratic Party promotes good will, fairness, and decency as the basis for its positions on human affairs  When people associated with the party demonstrate contrary qualities, they diminish the credibility of the party, and they drive people off.

The South Dakota Democratic Party, in the 2-to-1 deficit in voter registrations, has a daunting task in trying to regain viability.  It has new officials who need to deal with the paralyzing internal bickering, backbiting gridlock that party officers have had to deal with. The party needs to face that its most destructive  opponents are internal, and that business needs to be conducted in a matter that is open to the expression of viewpoints, but that they have to be dealt with respectfully and critically.  Political decisions based upon personality preferences are destroying the party.  

The party needs to shift its focus to the performance of the Republican  party, particularly in Pierre.  The corruption that has built up there during single-party rule needs to be under a constant challenge in ways that shine a strong, penetrating light on how South Dakota is governed.  The EB-5 affair has involved nefarious dealing, such as Joop Bollen's absconding with records from NSU, and the exact role of the governor's office with Bollen and Richard Benda.  Foreign investors lost tens of millions of dollars through a program conducted in the name of the people of South Dakota, and the people have the right to knowledge about just what happened to that money and who was responsible for it.  The Better Government Association in Chicago can provide examples of how secret activities can be exposed.  If the Democratic Party does not take aggressive and effective means for a full accounting of the EB-5 affair and similar ones conducted by state government, it will continue to be regarded as inconsequential in the state.

There is also a matter of the actual legislative records of John Thune and Kristin Noem.  While a representative, John Thune was remarkable for his ignorance of and opposition to issues important to the state's economy.  That ignorance re-emerged when he tweeted that Obamcare is bad, in effect, because six million people were in danger because of the law suit the Republicans had filed against it.  Thune has never been able to function without a script prepared for him by his party's operative.  His sterling piece of legislation was aimed at preventing the government from taxing cow farts, although the government had never proposed any such thing.  

Some people are promoting Sam Hurst as a candidate to run against John Thune.   He has a major demerit which will turn off the voters, including the know-it-alls in the Democratic Party, from the outset:  he is genuinely intelligent and talented.  As the Democratic Party flailed and thrashed about as it began its descent,  he was one of the few people who had the acumen and the courage to point out its problems.  While he would make a critically thoughtful and constructive candidate, the party would be better served to closely examine his diagnosis of its ills and formulate ways to actually help candidates rather than discourage and undermine them.  

South Dakota is in desperate need of people in government with intelligence and integrity.  And the Democratic Party needs people who can demonstrate that it actually stands for the principles it says it does. 

In the meantime, join me in singing the hymn of the day. 

**The South Dakota Democratic Anthem
**You're sitting there yakkin' right in my face
I guess I'm gonna have to put you in your place
Y'know if silence was golden
You couldn't raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You're quoting figures, you're dropping names
You're telling stories about the dames
You're always laughin' when things ain't funny
You try to sound like you're big money
If talk was criminal, you'd lead a life of crime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You know that life is short and talk is cheap
Don't be making promises that you can't keep
If you don't like the song I'm singing, just grin and
Bear it
All I can say is if the shoe fits wear it
If you must keep talking please try to make it rhyme
'Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working
By Mose Allison

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States