The Democratic caucus is now small enough that I could feasibly take them all out for dinner and remember what they all ordered. District 17 Senator-Elect Eldon Nygaard defected yesterday to the Republicans, thus bringing the GOP majority to 30 and the Dem caucus to 5.
Nygaard dresses his defection in language about the desire expressed by voters nationwide for change. Nygaard seems to be suffering a little Bjorklunditis, a condition marked by parroting pablum from the national media that doesn't really apply to South Dakota politics. If you want change in South Dakota, you don't vote for the majority party that has delivered and defended the status quo for over thirty years.
Nygaard apparently calculates that he can get more done for his district by joining the majority. He miscalculates the size of the majority. With an already overwhelming majority, one more Democrat jumping ship doesn't add much value for the GOP. The party can tease us Dems a little more (though even that advantage already seems maxed out), but Nygaard doesn't win much more political clout by boosting Majority Leader Olson's pack from 83% to 86%.
Now I might understand a candidate switching parties if the home party had been miserly in its support. But I understand from my Clay County friends that Nygaard enjoyed all sorts of Dem support, with folks holding fundraisers and young USD Dems knocking on doors to support him as a Democrat. Nygaard's pre-general campaign finance filing shows the Clay County Democrats gave him $1500, by far his biggest single donation. Nygaard is turning his back on a lot of committed voters who will be strongly inclined to field a challenger in 2012.
Nygaard's turncoatery (or turn of coterie) may signify a warning to the new Democrats. Nygaard evidently was denied two formal positions in a small Senate caucus that elected two twnety-somethings, Jason Frerichs and Angie Buhl, to leadership positions. This is pure speculation, but perhaps Nygaard represents some resistance to whippersnappery. The two men running for state party chairman, Ben Nesselhuf (age 35) and Mitch Fargen (age 27), may face similar dissent from some old-guard party members uncomfortable with the passing of authority to a new generation.
If such resistance does rear its head in some quarters, it is not a reason for Nesselhuf, Fargen, Frerichs, or Buhl to scale back their intentions for the party. The South Dakota Democratic Party's performance in recent elections has indicated that we could use new leaders and new ideas. Youthful leadership, like that provided by George McGovern six decades ago, is as good a bet as anything for rebuilding the party.
The party door remains open to everyone... and it goes both ways. Eldon Nygaard has gone out that door; he is welcome to come back in when he realizes he has made the wrong choice. But we won't stand at the door crying over departures; we have work to do.
Bonus Paradigm Shift: But maybe party identification doesn't matter so much any more. Maybe the dichotomy of Democrat vs. Republican, Left vs. Right, is just a distraction from the real battle lines in America: individuals vs. corporations!
Update 12:48 CST: Interested Vermillion ex-pat Rebecca Terk lodges her own complaint against Senator-Elect Nygaard's betrayal of the Democrats who faithfully helped him win his seat, even after his embarrassing vote, alongside Don Kopp and Kristi Noem, for HCR 1009, the resolution last session that denied climate science in favor of astrology.
Update 2010.11.20 07:21 CST: Former SDGOP honcho Joel Rosenthal sees Nygaard's switch as more reaonable and pragmatic than sticking with the "irrelevant" Democrats, whose tiny caucus will be stretched too thin to know what's going on across all committees.
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