While the national media characterizes this Great Plains state as about as red as they come, South Dakota voters challenged that perception late Tuesday by proving themselves remarkably receptive to so-called “blue” issues. However, as with most perceptions, the perception of South Dakota as red begins with a (large) kernel of truth: South Dakota has thrown its three electoral votes behind Republican presidents for 40 years. The last time a Democratic governor was in office, South Dakotan GIs were on the ground in Vietnam.
Perhaps most famously, South Dakota’s legislature passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban in February 2006. Signed by popular Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, it was designed to be the first test of Roe v. Wade in the age of the Roberts Court. But rather than take it to the courtroom, pro-choice groups opted instead to push for a referendum. By June, they had gathered 37,000 signatures on petitions statewide, enough to put the ban on the ballot.
This Tuesday, South Dakota voters rejected Referred Law 6, the abortion ban, by a solid 56 percent to 44 percent. But South Dakota is by no means a truly pro-choice state: The ban was defeated primarily because of a lack of exceptions for rape and incest. Nonetheless, the defeat of South Dakota’s abortion ban shifts the conservative prognosis. South Dakota voters were also reacting against the centralization and radicalization of the right. The state’s electorate is streaked with a libertarian impulse dating to the days when live-and-let-live ranchers made their homes hundreds of miles apart on the open prairie. Playing to that cowboy sensibility, the Republican party of old became hugely popular in South Dakota. But as the abortion ban illustrates, the new, evangelical Republican legislature has increasingly moved to define what is right and what is wrong, and this election cycle saw a mixed reaction to that impulse. Voters barely passed a more stringent measure banning gay marriage with 52 percent of the vote (compared with 81 percent and 59 percent support for similar measures in Tennessee and Wisconsin, respectively) and nearly legalized medicinal marijuana (with 48 percent in favor).
Interestingly, however, South Dakota voters returned a Republican majority to both houses of the legislature, and overwhelmingly re-elected Gov. Rounds. This suggests that while many South Dakotans have “blue” sentiments, they are not ready at this point to abandon the comfortable Republican label. That is not to say the Democrats utterly failed Tuesday in their election bids. In fact, they picked up five seats in the state Senate, bringing their total in that chamber of 35 to 15, including two seats in the western half of the state, historically a bastion of Republican support. Still, Democrats were disappointed. They had expected more from this election, dreaming of a majority in the state Senate and a return to two-party democracy in South Dakota.
For some Democrats, however, the tallies on Tuesday night did not signify the disappointing end of a long, exhaustive campaign. Rather, they were a promising prospect of what might be. On Tuesday night, they slung around phrases like “The next campaign begins tomorrow,” and “This is only the beginning.” They looked to Montana for inspiration, citing the gradual Democratic takeover of that state’s politics over the course of three or four election cycles.
But whether the “Montana Miracle,” as some Dakota Democrats call it, is possible in neighboring South Dakota remains to be seen. Much work remains to be done. At this year’s state convention, divisions appeared within the party about how best to approach the abortion issue. Democrats continue to argue over the best way to appeal to the center, which has seemingly been abandoned by Republican legislators. A party so long dormant and fractured must learn to become dynamic and unified.
Republicans aren’t in any danger of losing South Dakota’s three electoral votes in 2008, but the next few election cycles might see a dramatic reversal in state political trends. If Republicans continue to gamble on the extreme conservatism of their constituents, they run a grave risk of sending their moderate support into the arms of the newly revitalized Democratic Party. South Dakota’s response to ballot measures this year should send a message to Republican lawmakers. They would be foolish to ignore it.
Zack Abrahamson is a freshman in Silliman College. He returned to his home in South Dakota last week to help his father, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket.