First installment in a several-part series!
With a juicy GOP Senate primary on tap, I thought it might be instructive for candidates and voters alike to talk to Sam Kephart about his experience running in the 2008 GOP Senate primary against Joel Dykstra. Kephart happily shared his firsthand observations of the primary process and Republican baseball. Here is the first of Kephart's responses to my questions, in which he explains how his stand on South Dakota's failed 2006 abortion ban hurt his chances of winning the Senate nomination in 2008. Kephart also offers insight on then-Governor Mike Rounds's political calculations on abortion politics.
Heidelberger: Joel Dykstra beat you 66% to 25%. What kept you from drawing more votes?
Kephart: Joel had a relatively small pre-existing statewide name recognition over me out of the box, due to his being in the State House and his being the loyal Assistant to then Majority Leader Larry Rhoden; they were pretty tight at the time.
Further, Joel had previously received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Governor’s REDI Fund for a couple of relatively high-profile ag deals he had put together. Those deals ultimately failed and the loans were forgiven, so it was pretty obvious to me that Joel already had some type of serious “juice” with the GOP in Pierre, plus he had been schmoozing some of the county party leaders before I declared.
Further, I was unfairly viewed by many as a “carpetbagger”, because I had only moved to South Dakota in 2004.
I had been very active in the Lawrence County GOP and attended the 2006 State GOP Convention in Watertown as a delegate. I was even given a seat on the Resolutions Committee that year, which was competently chaired by a very hard working Jim Seward, Jr., who is now Governor Daugaard’s personal legal counsel and factotum.
As you may recall, 2006 was the year the pro-life folks were heavily advocating for Referred Law 6, the extremely strict no abortion bill. My fellow resolutions committee members unanimously wanted the State GOP to formally endorse it; I wasn’t so sure.
I felt the bill would have trouble passing a general vote in the fall without some kind of escape clause added to it for rape, incest, and the health of the mother.
The GOP endorsement resolution, which left no moral out for anyone who might disagree, carried as-is and went to the floor for formal ratification during the general session, which was the next day.
I woke up the next morning with my conscience bothering me. I decided to submit an alternate resolution that left a little moral “breathing room” around the bill. I wanted the resolution to say that while the State GOP was endorsing Referred Law 6, we would acknowledge that there were people of good conscience in both major parties who might take exception to it.
When I approached Jim Seward, Jr. about submitting a revised resolution, he correctly told me that resolutions had procedurally closed and that the only thing I could do was bring up my suggested alternate version, known by then as the Kephart Amendment, from the floor.
I did so; it was an unmitigated, 45-minute, political disaster.
I was publicly trashed on the floor by several folks and Dr. Allen Unruh, the titular head of the non-profit pushing for the law’s passage, publicly declared me to be “a man of bad character”... even though he didn’t know a wit about me.
Matt Michels was the chair of the proceedings; a roll call vote ensued just to stuff the “no’s” up my nose. Needless-to-say, the Kephart Amendment went down in flames like a WWII kamikaze flight; you should have seen the dirty looks I was getting from most of the 200 or so delegates.
I felt about as welcome as Nikita Khrushchev crashing a John Birch Society fish-fry.
Ironically, several hours later, while wandering around the hospitality booths, then Governor Mike Rounds took me aside and privately told me “I understand you had a very rough time on the floor today”. I said “Yes, Governor, it was pretty bad.”
Rounds then said “I just want you to know that I basically agree with you on this issue (Referred Law 6), but I can’t say anything publicly.”