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Who’s Afraid of John Thune? So Far, Everybody

Thune ran unopposed in 2010. This time, Democrats in South Dakota are trying to challenge him. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Thune ran unopposed in 2010. This time, Democrats in South Dakota are trying to challenge him. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

South Dakota Democrats are still looking for a candidate to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. John Thune, and don’t seem to be having an easy time recruiting one in the strongly conservative state.  

Thune famously beat former Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle in 2004, and in 2010, Thune ran without a Democratic opponent. At the time of his first reelection campaign, the former South Dakota Senate Minority Leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Heidepriem told  a local paper “we just concluded that John Thune is an extremely popular Senator who is going to win another term in the Senate.”  

South Dakota Democrats aren’t ceding the race this time, said Michael Ewald, communication director for the party. But he also said he could not give names of potential candidates at the moment: “There are multiple people.” Ann Tornberg, chairwoman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said having a Senate candidate could have an important effect down the ticket. “In a presidential year, it’s important to have candidates up and down,” Tornberg said. “We would put up a candidate whether or not we see him [Thune] as vulnerable.”  

South Dakota currently has an all-Republican congressional delegation, two senators and one representative. But Zach Nistler, who is campaign manager for South Dakota State House Rep. Paula Hawks’ Congressional campaign, said he’s optimistic his party will find a candidate.  

Rick Weiland, a former aide to Daschle who ran for outgoing Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat in 2014, said he was not running for Senate again but noted that when he ran, voter turnout was historically low. He said he felt that could change in a presidential year. Weiland said many of the issues he ran on — from money in politics to the power of political elites — are now being discussed in the 2016 presidential race, particularly by Republican Donald Trump and Democratic Sen. Bernard Sanders.  

“I may have been ahead of my time because I was running against the political class,” Weiland said, adding that even when Democrats lose, people support Democratic issues. Weiland pointed to the fact that in 2014, voters approved an increase to the state’s minimum wage.  

Yet the party struggles in a state that once sent Democrats such as Daschle and Sen. George McGovern to Washington. In 2010, the state’s at-large Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, was defeated by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem, whom Hawks is running against.  

Herseth Sandlin was previously floated as a potential Senate candidate in the 2014 race but she ultimately decided not to run.  

The fact that South Dakota was the last state President Barack Obama visited on a tour of all 50 states during his presidency was seen as proof of how unpopular Democrats are there.  

Tornberg, the state Democratic Party chair, noted that Democrats allow Independents to vote in their primary on June 7, while Republicans do not. Nistler, Hawks’ campaign manager, said that to win the state, Democrats need to win the votes of not only Democrats but also independents and moderate Republicans. And even unaffiliated voters vote overwhelmingly Republican in the state.  

The candidate filing deadline in South Dakota is March 29, meaning Democrats have a little less than two months to field and find a candidate.  

Contact Garcia at and follow him on Twitter @EricMGarcia.

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