After some stinging defeats in the 2010 election, South Dakota Democrats haven’t faded into the background. They have ratcheted up the rhetoric.
Party chairman Ben Nesselhuf routinely issues missives that skewer Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the Republican-led Legislature. He was elected to the post after losing his 2010 bid to become secretary of state.
“Gov. Daugaard may have declared victory in his budget, but our kids and are communities are losing as a result,” Nesselhuf said in a recent e-mail about school districts across South Dakota trying to gain voter approval to opt out of the state’s limits on property taxes.
In addition, a new venture headed by Mitchell native Steve Jarding takes Republicans to task in a weekly newsletter called The Antidote.
The Antidote is, so far, the primary mission of the new South Dakota Alliance for Progress and publishes regular standing features “The Thune Balloon” and “Under the Noem Dome” to highlight the alleged transgressions of South Dakota’s Republican members of Congress.
In a recent issue, The Antidote’s front page features an obviously edited image of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wearing a hardhat with an oil refinery in the background. That image goes with an article that laments Thune’s recent vote to continue tax breaks for oil companies and notes that he received more than $165,000 in campaign contributions from those companies last year.
“It would seem that there is only one plausible explanation for why John Thune voted for big oil over the interests of the people of South Dakota,” reads the article.
Jarding describes The Antidote as an effort to educate voters, especially on topics he believes the mainstream media has given short shrift.
“We wanted this to be an education component. We thought there was a readership and a void out there. We believe a lot of this stuff wasn’t being covered,” said Jarding, who managed Democrat Scott Heidepriem’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
Heidepriem’s loss, teamed with the defeat of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in her bid for a fourth full term, and a huge GOP tide in the Legislature, made 2010 another tough year for South Dakota Democrats. The news got worse recently when Steve Kolbeck, a public utilities commissioner and the only Democrat other than Sen. Tim Johnson to hold statewide office, announced his resignation from the PUC.
“The education part is a big goal for us, because we think it leads into so many other things,’ Jarding said. “We want a better state and a better government. We’re going to watchdog this stuff.”
As one example, The Antidote rates politicians on gun issues based on a combination of their NRA scorecard and the League of Conservation’s scorecard.
“We think that’s much more honest,” Jarding said. “We are 100 percent pro-gun. But I don’t fear someone taking my gun. I fear that there’s no place to hunt. We worry about habitat destruction and land being leased out.”
The Antidote’s masthead describes it as “A Movement to Change the Political Landscape in South Dakota,” and even a cursory review of any issue makes it clear Jarding and company aim to do that with a tough tone. Bipartisanship is not on the menu.
Jarding does not apologize for the edge, but he emphasizes that each article is thoroughly researched.
“We take great pride to say we’re as much a think tank or a research component. We want to be thorough, and we’ve got to be to be credible,” he said. “By saying this is a bad vote, that’s just an opinion. We’ve got to back it up.”
Chairman ‘very happy’ it exists
The South Dakota Alliance for Progress employs two full-time researchers and Jarding as an executive director. In addition, volunteers have helped with the group’s efforts since it opened its doors in February.
The Alliance is classified as a 501(c)4 for tax purposes, which means it is not legally required to disclose its donors. When asked where the group got its funding, Jarding replies: “We went out and raised it.”
As a 501(c)4, the Alliance is legally prohibited from coordinating its work with the South Dakota Democratic Party. Both Jarding and Nesselhuf said they are careful to make sure they follow the law.
“We need a different vehicle, something outside the party,” Jarding said. “By design, we wanted to have a separate entity.”
Nesselhuf said Jarding told him about his plans, and he supports the Alliance’s efforts.
“I’m very happy to have them operating. They have more time to focus on things that we don’t,” Nesselhuf said. “They are a really a nice asset. They’re clearly very, very busy. It would be nice if they had to work a little harder at coming up with stories. Republicans in this state are making it really easy to be a Democrat.”
For their part, Republicans don’t seem at all worked up about The Antidote. Thune’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s staff said the publication isn’t on their radar.
“I haven’t seen it,” said Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard’s director of policy and communications. “Is it a blog or a website?”
Venhuizen, who is also Daugaard’s son-in-law, managed his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, which bested Jarding and Heidepriem.
South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Tim Rave believes it is a tall order to reverse South Dakotans’ long-standing preference for Republicans.
“Republicans keep getting elected in this state,” he said. “They are saying something about the South Dakota voter. Apparently, they (voters) don’t like what’s going on, but they don’t know they don’t like what’s going on? They’re basically saying South Dakotans don’t understand how bad things are.”
The Antidote is neither a blog nor a website, and Jarding said he intentionally designed it as a newsletter confined to the traditional journalistic layout format on paper, or an electronic version. Most of the 14,000 subscribers receive The Antidote as a .pdf document attached to an e-mail. Some have it mailed.
Jarding said he researched the best format and decided that publishing regular issues sent out to people was preferable to a blog that relies on people to return. That is not to say the effort is low-tech.
A QR code is stamped on the front page to allow people to subscribe to The Antidote on their smart phones.
While Jarding is satisfied with the reception The Antidote has received, he plans more for the parent organization, including a 527 group, so named for its tax classification. In political circles, 527s are known as groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money for use directly in campaigns.
“We reserve the right to do all of that,” Jarding said.
The tough talk coming from both the South Dakota Democratic Party and the new South Dakota Alliance for Progress makes sense for a political party seeking to do better in the next election cycle, said Don Simmons, dean and associate professor of leadership and public service at Dakota Wesleyan University.
“What he’s trying to do is galvanize and organize his supporters, mobilize the base. It’s what they should be doing if they are trying to get people elected,” Simmons said. “Nesselhuf and Jarding are getting people talking about the issues and excited about the issues.
“I’m sure what they’re working on is fundraising and candidate recruitment,” he said. “Both parties have to continually do that.”