OPINION — Can the South Dakota Democratic Party emulate what its sister parties did in neighboring states last century?

Should the party merge with independents, and even consider changing its name? With the SDDP at a historic low point, having not won a statewide race since 2008, and outnumbered 94-11 in the South Dakota Legislature, is it worth considering?

That was a question posed to SDDP Executive Director Berk Ehrmantraut, as he and party chairman Randy Seiler spoke to a small, dedicated group of Democrats in Sioux Falls and on Zoom earlier this month.

Minnesota doesn’t have a Democratic Party. Instead, it has the DFL — the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties merged on April 15, 1944.

It brought together urban workers, miners, farmers, academics, women, veterans and others together under one big tent. That’s how elections are won.

South Dakota native Hubert Humphrey, who moved to Minnesota to make his name and career, was a driving force in the fusion. Humphrey was elected mayor of Minneapolis and then to the U.S. Senate before running for president in 1960, 1968, when he was the Democratic nominee, and 1972. In between, he served a term as vice president under President Lyndon Baines Johnson before returning to the Senate.

Minnesota has been, for the most part, reliably Democratic over the decades. South Dakota, except for brief flurries in the late 1950s, the ‘70s and the ‘90s, has been dominated by Republicans.

We have elected Democrats to Congress — George McGovern served 22 years, Tom Daschle was there for 26 and Tim Johnson served for 28 years, but in the last two decades, the GOP has taken complete control.

Would a name change help?

The SDDP also could model themselves after the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. It was formed in 1956, after the Nonpartisan League split in two halves, and for the first time in state history, Democrats and progressives gained significant ground and had a louder voice in state government.

So is this a way forward for South Dakota Democrats? They have been steadily losing ground in recent years while the number of independent voters keeps rising.

As of Nov. 1, there were 279,187 registered Republicans in the state, 153,830 Democrats and 139,740 independents. There are 2,576 Libertarians and 1,374 who belong to other minor parties.

Since Election Day 2020, the Republicans have gained about 1,400 members, and there are more than 1,300 more independents. The Democrats have lost 4,999 members.

Will joining forces with the indys save the day?

Ehrmantraut said it’s not that simple. Unlike Minnesota and North Dakota, there is no strong third party to merge with. South Dakota independents are just that. They are not a cohesive group.

The other issue is, many of those independents hold conservative views. If they were going to align with any party, it would be the Republicans.

But can the Democrats peel off enough independents to win more elections? Ehrmantraut said that is the goal.

He said every SDDP post on social media is made with the intention of appealing to independents. It’s a “consistent message” as part of a “coordinated campaign,” Ehrmantraut said.

It’s all part of a balancing act, he said.

The Democrats are teaming with other groups, including those circulating petitions for Medicaid expansion, legislative redistricting and recreational cannabis. Seiler said they may team up to do polling.

The Democrats also are reaching out more to a natural constituency, Native Americans. Cante Heart, who is a Sicangu Lakota, Ihanktowan Dakota and Winnebago Hochunk, is the Native outreach and field director.

“Cante believes that it is important to uplift Indigenous voices in all capacities,” he online biography states. “She also believes that it is up to us to create new relationships and bridge the gap to strengthen current relations. Cante looks forward to bringing a Lakota perspective to the party by building relationships through shared values with a collaborative approach.”

She and other South Dakota Democrats attended wacipis across the state this year and made other efforts to let Natives know they are a valued part of the party. Ehrmantraut said they constantly heard that people were glad to see them in a non-election year.

He said the support is building, and he sees a bright future for the party — even without a merger and name change.

“We think it’s going to be a really awesome election cycle,” Ehrmantraut said. “We’re really excited about it.”

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