If I had a little more cable-news DNA in me, I might have called it a breaking news bombshell.
Like, say: "This just in! Adelstein endorses Sutton in governor race!"
Deep breaths, everybody, deep breaths -- or try not to doze off, as the case may be.
It's not that former state Republican Sen. Stan Adelstein's endorsement of Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton over GOP Congresswoman Kristi Noem on Friday wasn't news. It was. It still is, kind of. It's just that it isn't much of a surprise.
Nobody who knows Adelstein, the former District 32 state senator from Rapid City, and Noem, the four-term U.S. House member from Castlewood (and, OK, sometimes Washington, D.C.), would expect Adelstein to endorse Noem. He doesn't like her. Whoa, I mean he really doesn't like her. And he doesn't like her brand of Republican politics. And I might hazard a guess that the feelings from Noem are mutual, squared.
In his statement, Adelstein, who helped get Mike Rounds elected governor (to say nothing of Archie Gubbrud decades earlier -- yeah, look him up. He mattered, too...) for the first of two terms in 2002 and came back to help him win a U.S. Senate spot in 2014, detailed some of the reasons he couldn't support Noem. They came right after he praised Sutton:
"Billie Sutton is a man who keeps his word and leads with integrity and heart," Adelstein said. " I’ve seen it happen day after day in his service as a legislator. He is a person who sacrifices personal gain to benefit his constituents. He has a gift of listening and analyzing policy and appropriations to prioritize the needs of our state, not just the wants. He has worked with legislators of all political stripes to promote the best policies for our state. I believe that he will continue to do that as our governor and lead our state forward."
And Noem? Not so much, according to Adelstein:
"I’ve watched his opponent stake out self-serving and inconsistent positions throughout her political career," Adelstein said in the statement. "During her race for Congress, she touted her ag experience and promised to be a leader for us on the important Ag Committee, but at the first chance, she jumped to promote herself to a more prestigious committee and left us without representation for agriculture. She campaigned on her commitment to represent us in Washington, but announced her run for governor just days after being elected to Congress, simultaneously transferring $1.6 million in political contributions."
The 87-year-old retired businessman and philanthropist noted that he is a lifelong Republican who has "supported five Republican governors as members of their transition teams." But he professed a commitment to "people and performance over party, arguing that "we are South Dakotans first" in his explanation for crossing party lines for his endorsement.
In truth, he didn't cross very far in this case. It's not like he started his travels on the far right, after all.
What Makes a Maverick a Maverick?
While Adelstein can be quite conservative on issues such as taxes or union influence, on key social issues such as abortion he is more liberal than Sutton. Far more, I'd say. I'd guess Adelstein is personally troubled by Sutton's stand on that issue and maybe some others, including gun control, where Sutton has a solid NRA rating.
Those issues appeared not to be a hurdle for Adelstein as he headed across the aisle for his endorsement, however. He said he is "concerned about my party’s same-old-same-old refusal to change, and blind support of their team." He has never been known for such blind support. And his tendency toward maverick behavior has shown over the years in ways large and small. One of the largest came in 2006, after he lost a reelection bid for his state Senate seat to cookie-baking conservative Elli Schwiesow.
No, that cookie thing isn't me going all stay-in-the-kitchen chauvinist on Elli. She actually baked and handed out cookies during her campaign. They were great.
That was as difficult race for me to cover, as many are here in this sprawling, sparsely populated, deeply interconnected community we call a state. I like Stan, who lived in and represented my legislative district and belongs to a breakfast club of old guys I have attended on Saturday mornings. But Elli is married to one of my old friends from Chamberlain, is a long-time friend of my wife's and she had gotten to be a friend of mine, too.
Who said it was supposed to be easy, this reporting thing?
Adelstein was stung by his loss to Schwiesow, who represented a conservative movement in the party that felt Adelstein was, well, Republican In Name Only. More on that acronym and how it has been wielded as a rhetorical club in inter-clan GOP disputes in a second. Adelstein put 2006 District 32 primary dispute in more personal terms, noting that Schwiesow was supported by the "very people I dislike most."
So after his loss, Adelstein called a news conference to announce his support for Democrat Tom Katus, who -- with Adelstein's support -- beat Schwiesow in the general election to take the District 32 Senate seat. Just as he explained his endorsement of Sutton on Friday as putting state before party, Adelstein in 2006 explained his endorsement of Katus as putting district before party -- something the party, or at least a good chunk of it, didn't particularly like. And Adelstein? He didn't particularly care.
In 2008, he ran again and ended up as his party's nominee, then going on to the general to beat Katus and Schwiesow, who ran as an independent. He was giddy to have reclaimed the Senate job he loved, and later confessed to skipping with joy occasionally in the Capitol halls.
Adelstein, who served in the state House before the Senate, won the District 32 Senate race again in 2010 and once again in 2012. But he was forced to resign from office in December of 2013 because of complications following hip surgery. He called that resignation one of the saddest, most difficult decisions of his life.
But it didn't end Adelstein's political involvement, his maverick style or his self-professed commitment to what he called reasonable Republicanism and "compassionate conservatism." He considered himself to be, "absolutely rabid," for example, in promoting the need to expand Medicaid coverage to the poor. Which is not something you would hear from a lot of conservative South Dakota Republican lawmakers.
Taking a RINO Ride Through History
Back when he was establishing himself as a notable voice in the Legislature, Adelstein founded a loosely knit, moderate group of Republicans called the South Dakota Mainstream Coalition. Its goal, in the face of an increasing push for power by the ultra-conservative wing of the party, was to promote in South Dakota what George H.W. Bush once said he wanted for America -- a "kinder, gentler nation."
Which was RINO talk to many, although it might not have been labeled as such at the time Bush said it at the Republican National Convention in August of 1988. At that point, many casual political observers still pictured a massive ungulate with a horny snout and an "H" between the "R" and the "I" when they heard the term "RINO."
Which is not to say it was created during the H-Dubya years. It goes back to the Republican Party of the 1800s, and was particularly useful as a pejorative by critics of the populist-progressive tendencies of Republican Teddy Roosevelt. Republican-In-Name-Only allegations -- with or without the acronym -- were also part of life for more progressive Republican politicians in South Dakota's past, including Coe Crawford, who served as governor from 1907 to 1909, then won a term in the U.S. Senate.
In his book The Governors of South Dakota, Tonnis -- we know him as Tony -- Venhuizen calls Crawford the first progressive to hold the South Dakota governor's chair. And as Venhuizen notes in his book, Crawford certainly acted like it, working to increase the state's regulatory power, raise some taxes, delve into certain labor issues and require registration of lobbyists and increased accountability on campaign contributions. He also sought to seek to keep corporate money out of campaigns.
Also worth noting, at least to me, was Crawford's previous tenure as South Dakota attorney general, when he hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency -- yeah, the "Who are those guys?" posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- to help locate former state Treasurer W.W. Taylor. They had reason to hunt for Taylor, who left office with his pockets full. Or as Venhuizen puts it in the book, he "absconded with the state treasury." Taylor eventually turned himself in and faced prosecution, by Crawford.
Those were the days, huh?
Crawford's political career faltered when he lost a Republican U.S. Senate primary in 1914. Six years later, he flashed what today might be called his RINO card by backing a Democrat, James Cox, in his presidential race against Republican Warren G. Harding. Cox was crushed in that race by Harding, who took 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 Electoral College votes -- which, unlike what occurred in 2016, really was a presidential landslide. In fact, Cox suffered the worst popular-vote loss in presidential-election history (yes, worse than McGovern's loss to Nixon in 1972, which ranks fourth).
Cox and Harding were both newspaper publishers. And Cox founded a newspaper chain that continues today as a media conglomerate, Cox Enterprises, with broadcast and newspaper outlets that include the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Before his doomed presidential bid, Cox had some serious success in politics, winning multiple terms as Ohio governor and congressman. The most important thing Cox did in his 1920 presidential campaign was to select as his running mate an assistant secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Rooevelt, who would take the Democratic version of progressive politics to a whole new level a few years later.
Roosevelt would also eventually win the support of another South Dakota progressive Republican named Peter Norbeck. The progressive-populist had years earlier been inspired by Theodore Roosevelt's independent style, conservation ethic and commitment to public-lands preservation, which aligned with Norbeck's. Norbeck was elected to two terms as South Dakota governor and three to the U.S. Senate. Before he died of cancer during his third Senate term, Norbeck let his progressive streak shake up his own party a bit. In 1936 he endorsed the Democrat FDR -- whose New Deal programs Norbeck passionately supported -- over Republican challenger and Kansas Gov. Alf Landon.
Roosevelt won South Dakota in 1936, but not by as large a margin as he had in 1932. Those two elections and the FDR programs and leadership turned a young farmer and New Deal believer from Lyman County named Henry James Woster into a lifelong Democrat and FDR fan. He was one of many.
Many fellow Republicans here in South Dakota were unhappy with Norbeck's endorsement of Roosevelt, but there's no historical record of RINO being invoked by name.
When RINO Really Arrived in the Political Dialogue
The most expansive use of the acronym waited for the modern era, probably the 1990s, and seeped down from Washington to state capitals, including Pierre. RINO has probably been the most frequently used term of disparagement that ultra-conservatives used against Adelstein, although there were others, most of which aren't worth repeating here.
When Adelstein resigned from the Senate in 2013, former Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli of Rapid City, a tough-talking politician who organized a conservative group called the Wing Nuts that still meets weekly for lunch and discussion, tried to play nice. He told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that he hoped Adelstein recovered from his health challenges. He also said: "He was anything but a Republican. He liked to tell people he was a Republican, but he wasn't."
Adelstein proclaims himself to be a Republican, sometimes referring to his many past credentials with important candidates in the party and also the "big tent" philosophy of Republicanism often attributed to Ronald Reagan. The term has been used by Democrats and Republicans but is probably most associated with a statement by Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater coming out of the Reagan years in the late 1980s: "Our party is a big tent,” Atwater told reporters. "We can house many views on many issues. Abortion is no exception.”
Actually, it can be an exception, and has been in South Dakota, with Republicans sometimes fighting over abortion language at their conventions and struggling to find comfort with pro-choice members. Democrats have had similar struggles with anti-abortion statements and philosophies from some members. In partisan politics, big tents sometimes seem to have small doors and no windows.
But that's another story, one I plan to get to at some point. At this point, consider this comment: "There is a battle raging for the heart and soul of the Republican Party in South Dakota."
I'd like to take credit for that line in describing today's environment. And you could argue that it works pretty well. But it actually belongs to Gordon Howie. And it's more than 12 years old.
That's how I quoted Howie in a Rapid City Journal story I wrote in January of 2006, as he prepared for a reelection bid for his House seat from District 35. Howie expected to the war to include attacks on him and some failings in his past -- mistakes he said he made before he found a more spiritually directed path. He said the political battles would be between the more conservative wing of the GOP and a the South Dakota Mainstream Coalition and Adelstein.
Not long after Adelstein founded his loosely knit group, which seems to have unraveled over the years, Howie was instrumental in the founding of another organization, which has endured. But Howie had the advantage of being part of a national movement.
After the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, some conservatives lost their minds. OK, that might be an overstatement, but certainly they were disturbed to the point of fury and foment by Obama's liberalism and, in many conservative minds, socialist tendencies. And let's be honest, some -- and I want to believe a very small percentage -- were disturbed by the idea of having a man of color in the White House.
That mix of energy and anger and concern and in some instances racism coalesced nationally into the Tea Party, including a West River group called Citizens for Liberty. Howie was instrumental in the group's founding early in 2009 and became its first president. He rejected the assertion that racism was at the base of Tea Party movement and certainly never showed it himself when I was around him. To the contrary, Howie's connections to and affection for the black community in Rapid City seem deep and sincere.
Howie won a state Senate seat in 2008 but gave up a reelection bid in order to run for governor in the five-person GOP primary in 2010, finishing fourth. He also ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, but as an independent. There was another independent in that Senate race, former three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who has his own strain or progressive politics.
Pressler presented that progressive Republican style and appealed to populists with positions like opposing the controversial -- and doomed -- Oahe Irrigation Project, which was brought down by its own weaknesses and a coalition grassroots opponents including family farmers and environmentalists. Pressler played on his East River farm roots, Vietnam service and Rhode's Scholar credentials in defeating Democratic incumbent Frank Denholm in the First District U.S. House race in 1974. He then served two terms in the U.S. House, and assumed a more conservative philosophy as he ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1978 and was reelected in 1984 and 1990.
But Pressler always seemed inclined toward moderation, and as the years went by he seemed to return to his progressive roots. The biggest turn came after he sought his fourth Senate term, something only one other South Dakota Senator, Karl Mundt, had accomplished. Pressler lost to gritty Democratic U.S. Rep. Democrat Tim Johnson in a hard-fought Senate race in 1996, then went through a period of understandable bitterness after the loss. But he also found solace and inspiration in university teaching, here and abroad, and other post-defeat diversions.
Then something extraordinary happened, to him and to Johnson. First, Johnson suffered a near-fatal brain hemorhage in December of 2006 that would leave him impaired in speech and movement, but not in will. During Johnson's long recovery, Pressler went to visit him in the hospital. He prayed for him, and with him, and they connected in some pretty profound ways neither might have imagined.
Then when Johnson recovered enough to run successfully for a third U.S. Senate term against Republican challenger Joel Dystra in 2008 -- a run that was nothing less than heroic -- Pressler endorsed and voted for Johnson. Pressler also endorsed and voted for Barack Obama, which was probably the beginning of the end of any meaningful standing he had left with mainline South Dakota Republicans.
In the 2014 Senate race, however, the independent Pressler got close enough at point to make things interesting, but ended up finishing third with about 48,000 votes in the general election. Howie got about 8,000. Former Gov. Rounds beat Democrat and former Tom Daschle state director Rick Weiland by a comfortable margin to take the seat left open by Johnson's retirement.
Since then, Howie has kept active with his The Right Side conservative blog and has also dabbled in his own TV programming. But he seems not nearly so active as he once was in what he called "the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party." Or perhaps he feels like he's fighting in a different way.
The Real Question is: After Adelstein, who?
With or without Howie, however, a bit of a battle continues within the state GOP, although it seems less than full-out war for the hearts and minds of the party faithful. And the effects of that battle could be very meaningful, or not so much, in the governor's race this year.
Some Republicans on the moderate or mainstream side of the party are likely to follow Adelstein in giving support to Sutton. But who? And how many? How public will they be? How much money will they give? The questions are essential to Sutton's chances against Kristi Noem on Nov. 6.
It might be that support for Sutton among Republicans and independents will be an organic thing that doesn't need to be ignited or inspired by familiar public names. But familiar public names matter. So who will they be?
Don't expect to see big names from the party on Sutton's team. Surely not names like Thune or Rounds, or Daugaard. The governor, for example, admires Sutton and his life story but has had a good GOP-team-members relationship with Noem since 2010, when they both ran for the offices they currently hold. So it's not surprising that Daugaard and his son-in-law, Tony Venhuizen, who we have already mentioned because of his book on South Dakota governors, are among hosts for an upcoming Noem fundraiser. Other hosts include Rounds and the 89-year-old Farrar, who remains active in politics, and a lot more.
I think Daugaard is done with statewide campaigns for himself. But clearly Venhuizen has an interest in running for something, some day. Endorsing a Democrat -- or even just staying neutral -- in a big race like this could make such plans a lot more complicated for any Republican in South Dakota. It's also fair to note that while Daugaard and Venhuizen get along well with Sutton and have worked together on certain issues, they are also pretty conservative Republicans, regardless of how they are seen and portrayed by the ultra-conservatives.
So they have natural points of political departure with Sutton that are difficult to get past.
Sutton might end up getting money and even endorsements from some old-guard Republicans like former Attorney General Mark Meierhenry -- a Gregory native whose roots are close to Sutton's in nearby Burke -- or former state Treasurer Dave Volk. I can think of a dozen other registered Republicans who once had notable roles in the party but have largely faded from the scene, and from positions of influence.
Sutton has already received some support from Ryan Maher of Isabel, the assistant Republican leader in the South Dakota Senate. Maher was among a bunch of co-hosts -- close to 100, I think -- at a recent fundraiser for Billie Sutton in Eagle Butte. Maher's dad, Mike, a Democrat, also was a co-host.
Ryan Maher is an interesting case study. He was a registered Democrat, like his dad, when he first won his Senate seat from District 28. But he had earlier been a registered Republican. And after a couple of Senate terms, Ryan Maher went back to his Republican registration.
In addition, Maher has a close personal relationship with Sutton and his family, which has long-and-deep family connections in the Eagle Butte area. So they're friends. Their families are friends. Some things matter more than party, as Adelstein says. Some things should matter more than party, as I say.
Nonetheless, Maher's involvement in the Sutton event caused concern among the GOP leadership, particularly given Maher's leadership role in Republican caucus in the state Senate. In a letter to the Timber Lake Topic, Maher responded to those concerns and tried to explain his host role and long friendship with Sutton. He also noted that some of the others on the host list are registered Republicans, and described the mix of Democrats and Republicans in his legislative district -- all of whom he serves.
Maher also said that if Kristi Noem were to come into his home country of Dewey and Ziebach counties "I would be more than willing to help her in any way I can."
Maher also said in the letter that Sutton's mother called in advance to see if it was OK to put his name on the list as one of the many hosts at the event for Billie. "She wanted to know if I cared if my name went on the sponsor sheet," Maher wrote. "I didn't care and I still don't. So now everybody is freaking out because I am in Billie Sutton's camp; if anything I would put myself as neutral."
Neutral now, OK. But neutral through Nov. 6? Who knows? But even considering their friendship and other factors, Maher's leadership role would make it a significant development if he endorses Sutton publicly. And like other endorsements from Republicans that might or might not be coming, it would mean more than the Adelstein endorsement.
Which was news, but not really a surprise.