Democrats fail to qualify candidate for U.S. House race

For the second time in a decade, South Dakota Democrats will not field a candidate for a national race.

Rep. Dusty Johnson will be re-elected without opposition to a second term, as long as he turns back a challenge from a former state legislator in the Tuesday, June 2, Republican primary.

Pam Cole, the new executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said Whitney Raver of Rapid City, who was trying to qualify for the ballot, fell about 100 signatures short. She needed 1,615 valid signatures to be placed on the ballot.

Kea Warne, director of the Division of Elections in the Office of Secretary of State, confirmed Friday afternoon that no Democrat qualified for the ballot.

Cole, in her 10th week as executive director, tried to put a brave face on it. She said Raver, 32, will “grow as a leader” and be a stronger candidate down the road.

Raver is a small business owner and entrepreneur coach. She was passing through South Dakota when her car broke down and she decided to stay. She has been open about the fact she was homeless at one point, but she was able to move forward, meeting her husband, Mike Raver of Custer, and settling down here.

Raver had never sought public office before. She was one of three Democrats who sought the nomination, along with Brian Wirth, a financial crime specialist from Dell Rapids, who ran as an independent for state Senate District 25 in 2018, and Ellee Spawn of Sioux Falls, aka Michelle Dawn Spawn, whose campaign in 2019 was derailed by her history of arrests and convictions for DUI.

Cole said Raver and Wirth both circulated petitions, which meant they were competing for signatures, since voters can only sign one petition in a race. But, Cole said, the biggest hurdle was the COVID-19 pandemic.

People stopped going to public places where they could be contacted and asked to sign. Efforts to hold drive-up petition drives were not terribly successful and door-to-door campaigning also failed.

“It was really difficult for her to deal with that,” she said. “It was really disappointing that we couldn’t get Whitney Raver on the ballot.”

Cole said she tried to go door-to-door and people simply would not open up and let her in. When she called and said she wanted to stop by, they asked her not to do so.

I think it was because of the pandemic, not because she represented the Democrats. Maybe six of one ...

“I think it isn’t necessarily detrimental to our party not to have someone running for that position,” Cole said.

She said Johnson, a former Public Utilities Commission member and chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, would have been difficult to defeat. Cole praised him for opposing Gov. Kristi Noem’s efforts to remove tribal checkpoints intended to safeguard Native Americans from COVID-19.

Johnson was elected in 2018, defeating former Circuit Court Judge Tim Bjorkman 60-36 percent. I was Tim’s communications director, which might explain the outcome. It offered an opportunity to see how campaigns work from the inside, so I moved to the Dark Side for a few months.

I prefer this view. But there will be no view on the congressional race this fall, as Dusty will ease to a second term. He needs to defeat former state Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” May of Kyle, a rancher who represented District 27 for three terms from 2013-19, on June 2, and since May has been unable to raise a lot of money or interest, Dusty should leave her in the well, dust.

Libertarian Randy “Uriah” Luallin qualified for the ballot. He ran in Colorado in the past but now Uriah hopes to reap votes here. I would still expect Dusty to end up with 90% of the vote, maybe more.

Democrats will have a candidate against Sen. Mike Rounds, as Dan Ahlers, a former state representative and senator from Dell Rapids who was defeated for re-election in 2018, is trying to make the big leap from Pierre to Washington, D.C.

Rounds will have to compete to win a second term, unlike his colleague Sen. John Thune. After a narrow win over Tom Daschle in 2004, South Dakota Democrats chose to give Thune a pass in 2010, a stunning decision.

Yes, Thune was popular and well-funded, but by letting him breeze to re-election, Republicans could turn all their energy and money to the House race, and state Rep. Kristi Noem was able to unseat Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the last best hope for a Democratic future in the state.

South Dakota Democrats will have a PUC candidate this year, Cole said, and that person will be identified after the June 20 South Dakota Democratic Party Convention, which will be held remotely. As in their chances of winning a race. State candidates can be nominated at a party convention, but anyone running for Congress must qualify well before the June primary.

Write-in votes aren’t allowed in the state.

Cole, who served a single term in the state Senate from 2009-10 representing District 7 in Brookings, said she wants Democrats to hold their head up despite the news. She said she is up to this challenge.

“I really did learn how to run and win races on the local level. I don’t think people should feel disconsolate,” she said. “We are making inroads.”

She said she and SDDP Chairman Randy Seiler, who ran a strong race for attorney general in 2018, are optimistic. They are working to recruit more Native Americans and young voters, seeing both as growth areas.

“It’s an exciting year and we are rebuilding and we are doing a lot to recreate and rebuild the party,” Cole said. “It’s been going really well. We’ve had nothing but positive responses.”

They just couldn’t get 1,615 people to sign a petition. The lowest decade in South Dakota Democratic Party history continues, but Cole insists they have reached rock-bottom and are ready to dig their way out.

Raver offered an optimistic outlook on her campaign page. Cole predicts she will he heard from again, and there probably won’t be a worldwide pandemic for her to deal with.

“To me, success isn’t about what I can do,” Raver said. “It’s about what we can do together. I’m going forward, but I’m not going without you.”

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