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Dennert Loses Quasi-Open Primary Bill But Stands Against Lederman’s Rebuke

The South Dakota Republican Party spin blog, run by an employee of the party chair, tried this morning to make it sound like Rep. Drew Dennert was in deep doo-doo for not checking with party leaders before filing House Bill 1305, which sought to allow independents to vote in the party primary of their choice. Party chair Dan Lederman sent out an e-mail urging party members to call their legislators and urge them to reject Dennert’s bill when it came to the House floor this afternoon.

Dennert responded to that scolding by taking the floor and defending his bill unabashedly.

Fellow Republicans David Lust and John Lake listen to Drew Dennert advocate opening primaries to independent voters, SD House floor, 2018.02.12.
Fellow Republicans David Lust and John Lake listen to Drew Dennert advocate opening primaries to independent voters, SD House floor, 2018.02.12.

Rep. Dennert, currently our youngest legislator at 22, told the House that HB 1305 matters to his generation. He said independents, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, average 3,400 per legislative district. Dennert knows many voters who register independent to keep their party leanings from affecting business or family matters but who still want to have their voices heard in primary elections. He characterized letting independents participate in the primary as good policy that a majority of voters wants to see.

Fellow Republican Rep. David Lust joined Dennert in support of HB 1305. Rep. Lust asserted that “most of the independents I know” are Republicans disaffected by his party’s utter failure to live up to its bedrock principles. Lust directed the House’s attention to Washington, D.C., where the ruling Republican Party is letting deficits “spiral out of control.” Lust said allowing those disaffected voters back into the Republican primary would give those voters a chance to hold Republicans accountable for abandoning their principles. HB 1305 would also give Republicans a chance to “earn that market share” by getting back to their own principles.

Brookings Republican Rep. Tim Reed called HB 1305 a good marketing effort for the party. It’s time, said Reed, for the party to listen to the younger generation. Independents are growing, so why not invite them in?

Hb 1305 drew Republican opposition as well. Rep. Lana Greenfield said “Life is about making choices” (Planned Parenthood, which held its lobby day today, surely bookmarked that statement for future reference). If folks choose to register independent, then they choose to miss out on voting in the Republican primary. So there.

Rep. Chris Karr worried that allowing independents to vote in the GOP primary will dilute the party and what it stands for (of course, Rep. Lust would say the Republican Party has little stand left to dilute).

Rep. Steven Haugaard made the biggest, rambliest speech against HB 1305. He said indy participation diminishes the significance of the primary and makes it more unpredictable (what? a primary election that isn’t a foregone conclusion? an election where candidates have to work to win? Perish that thought!). Every voter has the opportunity to join the Republican Party and make a difference. Haugaard said other organizations don’t allow non-members to vote in their affairs, so why should the Republican Party do so?

Because, said Representative Dennert in his unshrinking rebuttal, independents are taxpayers, and primaries are taxpayer-funded elections.

We could stop right there. That line alone cinches the debate for me.

Dennert said HB 1305 offers fairness to independents. He also said the Legislature had a chance to surprise everyone and do something the public actually supports.

That line makes me wonder if Drew’s Democratic grandfather Paul is finally getting through to him? That brief, unsubtle critique of the Republican-controlled Legislature sounded like it should have come from four rows to Dennert’s left. But no Democrats spoke to HB 1305 today.

HB 1305 failed, but by a closer vote, 29–37, than should have occurred in a Republican-dominated Legislature after the state party leadership declared fatwa on the bill. Dennert got 21 of his 59 caucusmates to support HB 1305, including senior Republicans Conzet, Rozum, and Speaker Mickelson. He also drew seven of eight Democrats (Ring gave the lone Dem nay).

Drew Dennert didn’t take Dan Lederman’s guff today. He stood up for his bill as a good idea for independents and for his party… and 21 of his colleagues showed their respect for his guts and his good idea with their ayes.