Behind the scenes of the recent primary election was a fight over South Dakota’s Republican party.
Two people, a current and former lawmaker targeted a dozen primary races. Their goal – to defeat what some call an ultra-conservative group of Republican candidates.
The stakes are high. The new lawmakers will shape the state legislature for the next decade.
State Senator Lee Schoenbeck has been around state politics for more than 40 years.
The Republican has been in and out of the state house in Pierre since 1995.
“You get to know a lot of people and get a sense for who's going to help move the process forward the best,” Schoenbeck says.
Lacking a primary challenger, Schoenbeck decided to get involved in a big way.
He raised money to support some Republican candidates over others. But his move has a larger cause – the soul of the state’s Republican party.
“They were judgement calls I made about people I know who I want to see serving,” he adds.
Schoenbeck spent more than $15,000 in personal and campaign committee funds. The money went to back Republican candidates he says are solid public policy people.
“To put our state back in a little different direction,” Schoenbeck says. “The legislature needs more credibility. To get there it needs good people. There are a lot of good people there, but there have been these aberrations. We need to get past that.”
Schoenbeck says he backed primary candidates running against members of an alternative Republican caucus—sometimes self-described as ‘ultra conservative.’
Schoenbeck disputes it’s a moderate versus conservative distinction.
“There’s a difference between conservative and crazy,” Schoenbeck says. “Some people are just crazy.”
Another person who’s out to reshape the legislature is former Republican State Senator Deb Peters. She left the legislature in December of 2018. She’s the founder of a political action committee called Pac’n Heat.
Peters targeted six primary races. Her goal – to defeat candidates who sponsored or voted for an anti-vaccination bill last session.
The vaccine issue is one that Deb Peters takes seriously.
“The anti-vaxxers are talking about it being personal choice, but the problem is there are so many people out in the community who are auto-immune,” Peters says. “Their systems can’t fight off the simple things and can’t take a vaccine. So, where’s their personal choice?”
Peters says she decided to partner with Senator Schoenbeck, to make sure the right Republican leaders are in the right place. But, Schoenbeck wasn’t the only other contributor. Pac’n Heat received $15,000 from Dana and LaDawn Dykhouse. Dana is the CEO of First Premier Bank in Sioux Falls. Former Super 8 Motel CEO Harvey Jewett also tossed dollars into the ring, both with Pac’n Heat and legislative races.
The political action committee spent nearly $10,000 on political mailers to target six different legislative races.
“I just think it’s important to have good people running and that we can protect those good people,” Peters says.
One target of the Pac’n Heat mailers was Representative Julie Frye-Mueller.
“These are East River liberal elites messing in our elections,” Frye-Mueller says. “They were absolutely spreading false li—I shouldn’t even say false—lies about me.”
Frye-Mueller won in her primary race for State Senator by four points against Hot Springs Mayor George Kotti. Kotti is one of the candidates who got campaign support from Lee Schoenbeck.
Frye-Mueller says one of those mailers claims she’s anti-tourism.
“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Frye-Mueller says. “I represent the district 30, which is the Mt. Rushmore district.”
Frye-Mueller takes issue with another mailer - about mandatory childhood vaccinations. While the legislative proposal failed, Frye-Mueller says she didn’t have a position when the vaccination bill came up.
“When these jerks, such as Deb Peters—and you can put that in what I’m saying—because she knowingly misrepresented both of those hit postcards on me.”
Frye-Mueller supports doing away with vaccination requirements. She says her position favors parental rights, not government mandates.
Another sponsor of the vaccination bill was Representative Tom Brunner, from Nisland. He was also targeted by the political action committee Pac’n Heat. The 7-term legislator was vying for an eighth, but lost in a four way race.
“I have nothing to bellyache about, other than a lot of dollars being spend, you really have to examine why,” Brunner says. “What’s the ulterior motive here in getting conservatives out and maybe more liberal people in.”
Brunner says he’ll enjoy a vacation from the legislature and imagines he’ll run again, but he says the political landscape could look different next time.
“I have a feeling that some district boundary lines will change after this census,” Brunner adds.
Following the census, the incoming legislature will redistrict political boundaries.
Some say the debate over how to define the party is a good thing. Dan Lederman is chair of the state Republican party.
He says some districts are more conservative, others are more moderate.
“That gives the Republican party a very good, diverse field of folks that have different political views,” Lederman says. “But, we all wear the same hat. We’re all Republicans. Sometimes some people wear their hat sideways, backwards, flat or tipped up.”
There’s another motive behind Senator Shoenbeck’s mission to reshape the state legislature. He will go after the Senate President Pro Tempore position. That person makes committee assignments in the Senate and selects what committees a bill gets a hearing in. Those moves can affect which bills get passed.
Schoenbeck’s drive to bring credibility back to the statehouse isn’t stopping with just Republican candidates. As for whether he’ll back any other party candidates in the general election...
“I think the fall will be interesting, stay tuned.”