Conservative sweep into control of Minnehaha County Republican Party

Right-wing delegates are changing the makeup of key county parties across the state.

R. Shawn Tornow, middle, the newly-elected chair of Minnehaha County, watches the nominating speech for Jennifer Foss, the lone candidate for vice chair.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Continuing a grassroots trend that has bubbled up in counties large and small throughout the party election season, Republicans in South Dakota’s largest county are under new, more conservative leadership.

“I think there’s a movement going on, not only in our county, but across the state," said Sen. Tom Pischke, of Dell Rapids, the new state committeeman in Minnehaha. "I think more and more conservative people are finally starting to pay attention to what’s going on, and that was relayed today in our elections.”

In addition to the handful of state legislators and county officials who make up the voting base for county elections, the large majority of the 90 delegates present were precinct committeepeople — hyper-local officials who, in theory, help organize individual neighborhoods for the party during election season.

It was those voters who helped Pischke unseat the current state committeeman, Sioux Falls Sen. Jim Stalzer, by a vote of 65-22 during the Minnehaha GOP elections held at First Lutheran Church in downtown Sioux Falls on Saturday, Jan. 28.

“A lot of these patriots have been signing up for these precinct positions within the county party,” Pischke said. “And today was their day to voice their concern of who they want representing them.”


Sen. Tom Pischke, left, of Dell Rapids, and Sen. Jim Stalzer, of Sioux Falls look on as Sen. Jack Kolbeck, of Sioux Falls, gives a nominating speech for Stalzer.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Though conservatives swept the slate of positions up for grabs, it was this contest that may have most clearly offered delegates a choice between the so-called establishment and a new, more conservative direction for the party.

Nominating Pischke was former House Speaker Steve Haugaard, who in 2022 launched a primary challenge from Gov. Kristi Noem’s right flank.

In his nominating speech, Haugaard praised the senator for “standing by his principles.” Pischke was the lone senator to defend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller during the chamber’s terse debate over her indefinite suspension on Thursday afternoon, appealing to her due process rights and criticizing the decision to strip voting rights from her district prior to an investigation.

While the election results in Minnehaha — and earlier results in Pennington, Yankton and several other counties — showed the more conservative side of the party gaining favor with local delegates, throughout the day’s festivities were appeals for unity.

Maggie Sutton, the outgoing chair and former senator who lost her legislative seat to newcomer Sen. Liz Larson, a Democrat from Sioux Falls, last November, used her opening address to attempt to re-focus the party going forward.

“All of us here agree on three things: God, family and country, and in that order,” Sutton said. Don’t make politics your God. Our real enemy is not within this group, our enemy is the progressive left challenging our God, our family and our country.”

A longtime mainstay in county and state politics, Stalzer — who was first elected to the legislature in 2012 and served four years in the House before moving to the Senate — made a similar set of appeals in his speech prior to the state committeeman contest.

“I think we need to come together as a consensus in Minnehaha County. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Someone who agrees with you 80% of the time is not a 20% traitor,’” Stalzer said. “And we need to bring this party together, both in the county and in the state.”


All told, delegates cast their ballots for six elected positions on the county’s executive board: chair and vice chair; treasurer; secretary; and state committeeman and committeewoman. All positions serve a two-year term.

For chair, the delegates selected R. Shawn Tornow over Rhonda Milstead by a 48-42 vote, both of whom drew support from conservatives in the county party.

Tornow said his goals will be shoring up fundraising and local organization, as well as beginning to chip away at some of the Democratic Party’s last strongholds in the state, as six of the 11 Democrats in the state legislature come from two districts in Minnehaha County.

“We’d really like to try to recruit good candidates, get more precinct comitteepeople involved and fundraising is part of it,” he told Forum News Service. “But also just bringing people together and pursuing our conservative — I’ll admit, we’re the conservative wing of the party. Doesn’t mean we don’t welcome others, we just hope to persuade them with the correctness of our ideas.”

Moving forward into the 2024 legislative contests and the 2026 statewide elections, the question for these newly-conservative executive boards of county parties will be how they leverage these political mechanisms now at their disposal.

“We will have to see if this type of momentum carries forward. It’s possible it does, it’s possible it doesn’t,” Pischke said. “People need to stay engaged and diligent.”

“The Biden administration hasn't done enough to keep Americans safe," the governor said during her remarks, positioning South Dakota as an example of how states can protect American interests.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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