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Nesselhuf to Battle King in Iowa: SD Dems Suffer More Brain Drain

South Dakota Democratic Party boss Ben Nesselhuf is leaving the state:

For the past 15 years, I have been involved with the South Dakota Democratic Party in one form or another. Today that will end. I am stepping down as the Chairman and Executive Director of the SDDP.

I am not giving up the fight; I am just changing my field of battle. I have an opportunity to manage a congressional campaign for Jim Mowrer, an Iraq War veteran, in Iowa's 4th congressional district. It is a campaign I believe in and a fight that I want to make in the district where my wife resides. I'm ready to be with her for this next political journey in my life [Ben Nesselhuf, e-mail, 2013.07.02].

The only good spin I have on this one is for Ben. His move makes perfect sense: he's moving to Sioux City to be with his wife (that they've already spent this much time living apart is nuts!), and commuting to Sioux Falls every day is a waste of time and energy that will be better applied to winning political battles, like unseating Congressman Steve King, a real conserva-yahoo. This move will make him a happier man.

But as David Montgomery notes, Nesselhuf is one more of a corps of young, energetic Dems leaving South Dakota for other battles. Varilek, Fargen, McGovern, McCarrick, now Nesselhuf. The state Dems have good folks ready to pick up the slack (interim exec Zach Crago will kick butt!), but we need all hands on deck. Iowa's and Jim Mowrer's gain is South Dakota's loss.


  1. David Newquist 2013.07.02

    This migration of mind and talent is stunning. As is customary and expected, these people all cite family circumstances as motives, but they also cite better opportunities, their intentions to carry on the good fight, but to take the fight some place where it counts for something. They are not renouncing their values; they are taking them to places where those values are at least respected. The big question is what messages has South Dakota given to these people, and what messages are they giving to South Dakota.

    It is admirable to comment on how lovely South Dakota is and to carry on a fight for it, but being a Democrat in South Dakota is like being a Christian missionary in Taliban country. If people want to use their heads, they migrate to places where they will be allowed to keep them. These departing people are part of a demographic shift that has dramatically affected the culture of the state. South Dakota has its lovely aspects. For those of us who linger here, the best we can hope for is to return that lovely landscape to the people we stole it from.

  2. mike 2013.07.02

    I don't know Zach but he will be good because he is the opposite of David Newquist. He believes in the fight of the next battle where Newquist is constantly dwelling on the defeats of the past. There are silver linings all around for anyone who looks for them. You have to start small and build from there. There are no magic beans - just a lot of hard work a head.

    What Zach lacks in experience he will more than make up by his shear belief in the cause. The SDDP is lucky to have him instead of someone who is there for the paycheck.

  3. David Newquist 2013.07.02

    History is what shapes the present moment. The fact here is a number of talented, intelligent activists have left the state. Are they dwelling on defeats of the past or assessing where true opportunities lie? The presumptuous characterizations of how and what I think based upon a moment of irritation is typical of the stereotyping, reality-denying mindset that I have watched sending talent and ambition elsewhere for 30 years. Denial is not conducting a good fight. Smarmy slogans about staying the course and courageously joisting at windmills do not address the fight. The Democrats are as entangled and encumbered by petty personality disaffection and gossipy infighting as is the other party.

    The fight is with a mindless boosterism and a failure to recognize the fact that the agricultural culture which once was the inspiration and support for the progressive movement is now an agri-business culture which is controlled from corporate headquarters, which have outposts in our universities.

    Yes, some of us think about defeats of the past and probe for the reasons behind those defeats.
    A major factor is that a majority of the voters have bought into campaign falsehoods and are distracted, if not totally obsessed, by petty intra-party peeing duels. In the meantime, those capable of addressing what the real objective of a fight is are moving out to conduct that fight with allies who can focus on it and not get mired in the exchange of petty snark.

    The defeats of the Democrats are rooted in a massive intellectual failures that the party does not have the courage or the wherewithal to address. And so, the good people leave.

    This war cannot be won by twitter tweets, bumper stickers, or blogs. They are a large part of what has comprised those defeats of the past.

  4. Rorschach 2013.07.02

    Best of luck to Ben. He will be missed!

  5. Rick 2013.07.02

    How about just leaving the entire ballot blank in the 2014 election? It worked so well for that 2010 Senate race, right? No losses. No money down the rat hole. No disappointments. No trying.

    I wish Ben well. He is very talented and has the kind of gung ho attitude that is ideal for running campaigns. He's also done a lot of smart things to build the SDDP. But things won't change quickly enough without a big change from the grassroots to the top.

    David is 99 percent correct about what happens in the state party family. I don't think all hope is lost, though. The SDDP is no better than its strongest and weakest county parties' officers. But when you sit in a State Central Committee event you'll see very, very few faces under 50 years old. The median age of county party officers is probably 62 if not older. While older, experienced activists are always wanted and valued, there is no culture of succession in the county and statewide levels other than to hand the top spots to other 55-plus activists.

    The Republicans have for decades played a smarter, more aggressive game of encorporating young people. Yes, they've also got some of the same structural and cultural problems in the state GOP hierarchy. But Democrats have invested virtually nothing in young activists, even though the "values" of young people are far more in line with Democrats than Republicans. Continuing the present structure of the SDDP will guarantee a downward spiral until there is just a handful of people calling themselves the SDDP because they're the die-hards. In fact, the SDDP is practically at that point right now.

    It's time for a 21st Century construct of the SDDP that aims for those younger residents who have energy and the ideals at heart to make it work. I'd leave it up to this group (which does not exist yet) to figure out how to make it work. Just like they did in the summer of 1953 when responsibility for a new construct of the SDDP was left up to a young, idealistic college professor from Mitchell. Back then, Democrats had only two state senators in Pierre.

    The young people don't need to leave South Dakota. They need to be encouraged to realize a new opportunity. This is their fight and their future. Those of us who had our chance 20 or 30 or 40 years ago need to stand back, be quietly supportive and trust they will work it out. They will!

    I'm not saying there's a magic solution here. It's just that the old activists are not capable of visualizing the solution.

  6. Old guy 2013.07.02

    Cory would this be something that would interest you as I believe you would be good at it?

  7. kurtz 2013.07.02

    you did once say that you could be doing more to fill the vacancies in county chairs, cah.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.02

    Wasn't Ben making an effort toward building that new young generation with YELL? Wasn't he part of that generation that we're seeing leave?

    Thanks, OG. I might enjoy that work. But we're going to be on the road for a couple years, so that's a career jump I can't currently pursue.

  9. mike 2013.07.02

    I completely agree that Cory would be a good choice for the next Chairman. Though it will probably be someone like Frerichs who might do an ok job but won't be the party activist that is needed. Rick Weiland would be suited well to run for Chair instead of Senate.

  10. mike 2013.07.03

    When Democrats were falling apart letting Elizabeth May win the writing was on the wall for Nesselhuf's tenure. It was unorganized, lacked clear strategy and had nothing from the top down to generate enthusiasm.

  11. mike 2013.07.03

    And all of the talk about Democrats leaving the state makes me laugh. In 2-4 years the SDDP will be singing a completely different tune. Stephanie is still here and so is Brendan Johnson. As long as they are in this state the Democrats have nothing to do but look forward to when the time is right.

  12. Troy Jones 2013.07.03

    I believe in the two-party system and wish the SDDP were stronger and had more impact. But, to get stronger, you need to face some facts.

    1) It is the SDDK as in "klutch." You have no permanent infrastructure because you have depended on the "cult of personality" of your candidates. When the candidate is gone, you have nothing.

    2) You have to set reasonable goals and accomplish them one step at a time with a long view. To use resources chasing windmills only wastes resources. After the election, the windmill is still turning but it pumped no water.

    3) You need to remember your job is to elect candidates. Which starts with focused recruitment and finishes with proper resources. Besides the fact the last negative postcards were "Hail Mary's," they were "in support" of candidates who barely could beat a former legislator confined to a nursing home much less a real candidate.

    4) Not launch ballot initiatives ("cult of a single issue"). When the issue is gone, poof you have nothing.

    5) Have an agenda more than opposing the Governor on the "issue of the day." It is petty.

    I wish you well. Your party's demise began in 1986. It took you 27 years to get to this point. The road will be hard but all of us will be better off if you start walking down a new road.

  13. Dave 2013.07.03
  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.03

    Troy, I would certainly prefer a cadre of skilled candidates who can win office, pass good bills, and block bad bills over initiatives and referenda. Still, I&R petition drives have their place in the party toolbox. Such drives are great opportunities to organize, get new people involved with the party, lead important public policy conversations, and gather data for future campaigns. The referendum of the Governor's Large Project Fund produced positive results: defeating that plan gave Bernie Hunhoff the leverage to influence this year's SB 235 toward better policy. That was no windmill.

    And just who the heck are Republicans to say we shouldn't use negative campaigning? Did you see the Noem campaign last year?

  15. Testor15 2013.07.03

    Kudos to Troy, David and the others.
    The real breakdown of the McGovern legacy happened in the 1974 campaign when the cult of personality took over the Democratic Party of South Dakota. Dick Kneip ran for the third term in a bitter primary contest. George Cunningham messed with the GOP primary and we ended up with Larry Pressler in congress. So much effort was put into personality politics in 1974, bitterness followed and the dream of two party politics was lost by 1980 when George McGovern lost his senate seat.
    Many of us tried to rebuild the party into a viable organization using the tired and true principles taught to us by the professor from Mitchell but have continually been rebuffed.
    My continuing complaint with Ben and the previous is summed up in David's post above "This war cannot be won by twitter tweets, bumper stickers, or blogs. They are a large part of what has comprised those defeats of the past."
    If you have the job, do it. Get off Facebook and get to work.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.03

    One can spend too much time on social media (I say as I haven't gotten up from the computer to get my morning orange juice yet). However, using social media well is a crucial part of 21st-century organizing success. Team Obama did much more than hang out on Facebook, but their use of social media was important to their success. Rebuilding the SDDP is not about doing X instead of Y; it's about doing X, Y, Z, and 47 other things.

  17. kurtz 2013.07.03

    pierre should be a battleground rather than a sideshow for dems.

  18. Rick 2013.07.03

    mike - I agree with your statement regarding SHS and Brendan as prospects for the future.

    Troy - Your list of sticking to the basics is on target, except there are issues which should occassionally be put on the ballot. However, they should be rare and they should mirror the messaging in the statehouse campaigns and the Democrat caucus. What's been missing is a concise agenda that is rooted in the sessions and is carried into the campaign messaging. It makes criticisms of the power structure more credible and answers the question "what would you do to fix the situation." There have been attempts to keep the party on the tracks but those in charge of the cults of personality have thwarted the competition from the statehouse side because of a paranoid and false belief that statehouse resources remove resources from congressional races. The real backsliding of the SDDP started in 1980 when the Kneip people cleared the deck and left the fortunes of the party to the winds of Washington. This has been an internal conflict between the congressional politicos and the true believers that a strong state party floats all boats. The Republicans do a great job investing their power base in Pierre, while Democrats have built their castles on the sands of the Potomac. It's a dumb business model for winning elections in the middle of the nation.

    Dave - Pat's an agitator and if the facts don't fit the narrative, he tends to make up his own "facts." It really marginalizes his blog's influence, which dropped with the scandal in the Secretary of State's office ... a scandal which could be re-examined on other blogs piece by piece. The power structure in Pierre did a quick sweep-under-the-rug with that one, but that dirt is still there and can be used again.

    Testor - You need to hear Frank Denholm's version of that episode. It's worse. As to social media, it's one tool in the box, it's not the only tool. To Troy's point, it's going to require a long time of doing things right for the SDDP to gain political bouyancy. Until then, everybody needs to grab an oar. My earlier point is it's unlikely the activists who are 60 and older will see the next big Democratic sweep in this state. It's critical that people under 35 be shoved forward to create the vision and rebuild the party.

  19. kurtz 2013.07.03

    and pat has been devastating keeping us focused on the senate race instead of more vulnerable posts like us house and governors chair.

  20. Testor15 2013.07.03

    Cory, Troy Jones knows the power of organization better than most currently active Democrats. You must also consider the legwork down by Howard Dean forces for 2006 and 2008 to build a 50 state effort. We actually had people doing the hard work of going to the little towns and organizing a real rural party. It showed in the November results of those years. The current party has been more concerned with living off legends with out doing the legendary work. South Dakota is retail politics where you must take it to the people in a consistent manner. South Dakota Democratic politics is flash in the pan wizardry of the here today gone tomorrow huckster salesman variety.
    The Democrats have nothing setup up for victory for 2014 and beyond. Ben sat in Sioux Falls or Vermillion most of the time sending out cute emails and Facebook updates. I find no evidence of actually going out and rebuilding a party.
    South Dakotans are ready for a change but the SD Democratic party has not tried to be anything but weak knee second cousins of the GOP-lite variety. Who keeps being mentioned for office seekers? Democrats of the rightwing variety: Blue Dogs, second generationers who are viable because of parents and former GOP officeholders who now claim to Demos.
    There must be a way for the Democrats 'leaders' to leave their offices and get back to real organizing.

  21. Testor15 2013.07.03

    Rick, I know much of what happened in the 1970s because I was in the 'rooms' when many of these things happened. I was appalled than and did all we could to fight it. The cult of personality and George Cunningham's games did a huge disservice to the party. I personally blame George Cunningham for the downfall of the party fortunes. I was there, I saw in in person, I will never forget it.

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.03

    Pat hasn't devastated anything in a meaningful statewide fashion.

  23. Testor15 2013.07.03

    Not devastating, just trying to distract. See the shining ball? Now go run after it...

  24. Troy 2013.07.03


    As a partisan conservative Republican, if you think ANY focus on ballot issues helps your party, I'm happy to see you continue to expend your resources there. In ten years, you'll defeat two bills (that could be handled in the Legislature if you had any mass there) at the ballot and have nothing else to show for it.

    To be meaningful as a force, the SDDK needs organization, a starting line-up of elected leaders (who have to have followers to lead or they aren't leaders) and a bench. You now have none.

    As Republicans, primaries should be where we formulate our vision and select candidates to take that to the broader body politic for endorsement. Now, the GOP primary is the entire field where issues are debated and endorsed.

    The GOP is the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, and Reds. The SDDK is the Astros single A club where we can't even assess if you have anyone that can make it to the majors.

    We need a worthy opponent to be our better self. Pre-season exhibition games with the single A club serves nobody.

  25. Troy 2013.07.03

    P.S. Putting Joe Mauer on the Astro's single A club doesn't change the outcome. A star (cult of personality/cult of ballot initiative) only concentrates effort to get out. The star is still stranded on first base and the best home run hitters do it 1 of 13 at bats and strike out more than most. Granted, Joe Mauer might put a few more people in the seats on Opening Day but over the course of a season, hardly moves the needle.

  26. kurtz 2013.07.03

    there you have it. troy gloating over decades of extra-ethical governors club clout is so conservative.

  27. Testor15 2013.07.03

    kurtz, Troy is not bragging or gloating. He is simply stating the 100+ year history of the SD GOP. The few times the GOP has been challenged successfully were the times they actually had worthy long term opponents thinking and working long term. I actually learned some of my best political lessons on how to beat the entrenched system in SD from very generous GOP officeholders and activists who understood what Troy has said.

  28. kurtz 2013.07.03

    jousting with shadows is so tedious.

  29. Troy 2013.07.03


    I sincerely wish you well. When both parties are strong, we actually find ways to confront and solve the biggest problems/opportunities. And, it seems the partisan personal character attacks are less. Everyone sees people of good will even in disagreement. Which is why they call people living together "civilization."

    Just don't expect any help from me. First, it has to come from you. Second, people on your side will think my advice is some type of perverse reverse psychology. Third, I am still a partisan. When the ump says "Play Ball," it is my nature to kick your butt.

  30. mike 2013.07.03

    These arguments are pointless.

    A ballot initiative is a great tool. Daugaard has failed at two of his major issues in the legislature. Education reform and the projects fund. Last year the legislature made the projects fund bipartisan and passed it again.

    Where Nesselhuf went wrong was not getting more educators to run for office across this state. Chuck Welke won in a very Republican district against an incumbent Republican. He ran on education, name id and cult of personality. HINT everyone runs on name id and cult of personality. John Thune, Kristi Noem, Dennis Daugaard, Mike Rounds, Tom Daschle, Stephanie Herseth, Bill Janklow etc. You have to be likable or respected by the voters.

    Democrats had a decade of Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle in the Senate. Republicans haven't had the Senate in a long time. There wasn't a bottom falling out in the 80's. It happened in 2004 when Daschle lost, 2007 when Johnson had his stroke and 2010 when Stephanie Herseth went from winning every county in the state in 2008 to losing in 2010.

    Daschle served a long time in DC for SD and so did Johnson. The party wasn't ready for Daschle's defeat to coincide with Johnson's stroke (I don't remember the actual term for what happened). Stephanie wasn't ready to take the reigns of organizing the party in Johnson's absence. It hurt her because no one raised money and no one organized the party at the most basic levels.

    I'm telling you guys that no later than 2018 you will be singing the praises of a Democratic revival in SD. When Stephanie runs for Governor in 2018 and beats the winner of a bloody primary between Noem, Jackley and Mickelson and Brendan Johnson swoops in and wins that open house seat your fortunes will change for the short term. When governor appointments go through Herseth you will see a major change in the party. At that point Stephanie and Brendan will have to take control of the party apparatus. Stephanie can't be aloof to organizing the party. In fact Stephanie and Brendan should be pushing their people into the structure of the SDDP now and playing a heavy role in fundraising and candidate recruitment. It's time for them to step up.

    I believe Brendan Johnson could run a competitive race against Noem this year with all the anti DC news, anti obama, scandals, and voter registration disadvantage.

  31. Testor15 2013.07.03

    Troy, The Democrats have to solve this on their own. The party is so used to 'using up' people and throwing away everything from the last election to the point no one is left who understands how to actually win. Those of us who have been at it a long time have had to move on with our lives. It is expensive in money and spirit to tilt at windmills.
    The SD Democratic Party is not the big tent party it pretends to be. It has become a collection of the outcasts who can't fit in anywhere else. There has not been any real party leadership to pull it together since the days of Jerry Andrews and Jim Guffy. These guys went out and really worked the bushes and grasslands to find people building a strong coalition of ideas with a purpose.
    In some work I attempted personally over several election cycles was to guide the collection data for long term use by the party. No one wants to do actual post election work in preparation for the next cycle. It is always, "well that didn't work so just throw it away" or "I might need it myself someday so I better not give it away".

  32. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.03

    Testor, whom did Team Nesselhuf exclude from the party tent?

    I agree that long-term work, building on what we've done, is essential to party success. Without that, the personality-based revival Mike predicts for 2018 won't happen. Mike, I like your scenario of Brendan and SHS busting out in 2018, but it won't happen by itself, and it won't happen without party groundwork in 2014 and 2016, will it?

  33. mike 2013.07.03

    Cory, you are right. Brendan and Stephanie need to step up now whether they run this year or not. Why can't one of Tim Johnson or Tom Daschle's heavyweights take the reigns of the party and begin the rebuilding process. Even if the SDDP said "we are not a statewide party today" and focused on urban areas eastriver and reservations. Get those senate numbers back up to double digits, win county commission races, find young energetic Dusty Johnson like people to run for constitutional offices. The party needs to look at where they have strength and then expand upon it in those areas. There is nothing wrong with the SDDP being a Sioux Falls regional party for a cycle and targeting key places they can win in Brookings, Aberdeen, Huron, Yankton, Madison NE and SE. The east side of the state is ripe for Democratic victories.

    I see a lot of positives for Democrats to build on.

  34. Testor15 2013.07.04

    Never said the big tent excluded, the managers of the tent did not want certain types of help. Without sharing names given in confidence, there are many old timers from the past victories who only got phone calls when money was wanted. Never assistance of knowledge gained from many years in the good fight.
    Some of us want our liberal views upheld and our voices heard. The problem is we are being told to be phoney blue dogs and put our convictions away. Money is king and only Texas type blue dog politics is to be played now. So throw away the principles McGovern, Abourezk, Denholm, Dougherty and Kneip saw us win with 40 years ago.

  35. MJL 2013.07.05

    Has anyone thought Ryan Casey might be a good leader for the party?

  36. Charlie Hoffman 2013.07.06

    Great to see dialogue without name calling and venomous anger spewing out of every other sentence. I have stated numerous times in Pierre that what SD really needs is more Democrats in the legislature. The fight today is within the GOP between those who consider themselves True conservatives and Republicans who match a broad swath of the general population. Looking forward though we will see more and more Independent registrations as the young new SD voter becomes more and more disgusted with DC politics, a shrinking Democrat Party and an evermore fractured Republican Party.

    Mike I can think of a number of people who will also be running for statewide office making your assumptions invalid. I don't know Brendan Johnson, hear he is a super smart hard worker and good guy from lawyer friends, but in my mind working the crowd and making people feel good after visiting with him is not one of his strong points. And to win statewide that asset in SD is most important. Ms. Herseth Sandlin on the other hand has her father and grandfathers charm and can gather smiles and hugs and laughter at any event. If she wants it.

    Never underestimate the pure people power of Bernie Hunhoff either. He is the easiest politician to like in the Democrat Party and works like a guy half his age.

  37. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.06

    Charlie, is that split in the GOP enough to support the true political dialectic that we all seem to agree South Dakota needs?

    MJL, is Ryan Casey interested in the job? Did he quit Raven to spend May and June whispering under Nesselhuf's bedroom window, "Ben, this is Jesus! Go to Iowa!"?

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