02 March 2006

South Dakota Politics

All politics is local, and the recent passage of legislation banning abortion in South Dakota, something that it obviously unconstitutional on its face (what an attorney general argues in Court in defense of a bill like this, I don't know), says more about South Dakota politics than anything else:

The ban sailed through the House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Mike Rounds has said he is inclined to sign the measure, which would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless necessary to save the woman's life. The bill would make no exception in cases of rape or incest. . . .

For the most part, Republicans have dominated the Statehouse since the 1970s. The last Democratic governor left office in 1978, and Republicans enjoy a 51-19 majority in the House and a 25-10 advantage in the Senate.

South Dakota, which ranks 46th in population with about 780,000 residents, has just one abortion clinic, and it performs about 800 abortions a year. Planned Parenthood, which operates the clinic, has said it will sue over the bill.

"At one time, the Legislature was pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats," said Thelma Underberg, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-choice South Dakota. "But through redistricting, they managed to get rid of a number of women ... (who) were progressive."

Underberg was on a state Democratic convention committee in 1992 when abortion rights were removed from the platform. . . . Bob Burns, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, said that before Roe v. Wade, state politics could best be described as a moderate form of fiscal conservatism. But after the Supreme Court decision, he said, the Christian right was activated. . . .

Another factor that may have contributed to the bill's passage was Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle's stinging loss to Republican John Thune in 2004.

How do you run a Democratic party in a state like South Dakota? You win only 40% of the seats in each house of the state legislature and every statewide elected offical in state government (except the state's Commissioner of Schools and Public Lands whose ministerial task is to manage investments for the benefit of the state's school system) is a Republican. Bush got 59.9% of the popular vote in 2004 and 60.3% in 2000 in South Dakota. Miraculously South Dakota has both a U.S. Senator (Tim Johnson who won in 2002 with 49.6% of the vote) and a U.S. Representative (Stephanie Herseth who won in 2004 with 53.4% of the vote) who are Democrats. Herseth is a moderate Democrat in the mold of John Salazar of Colorado. Tim Johnson is neither exceptionally conservative, nor exceptionally liberal for a Democratic Senator, and will likely face a very close race in 2008. Herseth also will likely have a hard fight this fall, even though her incumbency and moderate politics give her an edge.

Obviously, you don't appeal to some of the traditional constituencies of Democrats. South Dakota's population is 0.6% black, 0.6% Asian and 1.4% Hispanic, and 1.3% of mixed race, although Native Americans make up 8.3% of the state's population and tend to lean Democratic. Just 2.9% of the private sector work force in the state is in a union. Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians aren't terribly abundant in South Dakota either. A predominantly rural population is also not a prime Democratic party demographic, and the state isn't known for its concentration of affluent social liberals who provide a pool of donors for the party in many states. The state capitol, Pierre, has under 14,000 residents; Sioux City, the largest city in the state, is about a quarter the size of Denver and has less of a metropolitan area as well.

Does it make sense, in a state like South Dakota to fight the good fight as a perpetual underdog (an approach that has helped the Democratic party nationally), or would it be better to try to develop what might pass for more of a viable two party system within the state, by replacing the Democratic party with a more conservative alternative to the Republicans (a populist party, perhaps)? Or, is some hybrid possible?

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