Revisions to GOP candidate selection rejected by party leadership

Republican Central Committee voted down controversial bylaws change, leaving any reshaping of primary system up to the state legislature.

Delegates to the South Dakota Republican Party's State Central Committee receive their ballots for party chair during the open afternoon session of the annual meeting in Pierre, taking place this year on Jan. 14.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

No changes to party bylaws will come from a closed session of the State Central Committee, held during the morning of Jan. 14 in Pierre.

The annual meeting also saw the party select its new leadership during an open session in the afternoon, with Sen. John Wiik of Big Stone City handling the challenge posed by Tom Brunner, a former legislator from Nisland generally thought to represent the more conservative wing of the party. Wiik prevailed with an announced delegate split of 113-66.

Rep. Mary Fitzgerald of Spearfish, Wiik’s running mate, was elected vice chair.

Sen. John Wiik, the Big Stone City legislator newly elected to chair the South Dakota Republican Party, speaks before voting begins during the open afternoon session of the State Central Committee meeting on Jan 14 in Pierre.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Despite a day somewhat characterized by the party’s divisions — with dozens of people lining the halls during closed session holding signs supporting Brunner and sporting slogans such as, “Fix 2020 First,” among others — Wiik’s acceptance speech began with a profuse thanking of Brunner and continued with appeals for unity in the party.

During the closed session that morning, a controversial proposal to strip precinct committeemen of voting privileges at the party’s convention failed overwhelmingly by voice vote, according to several sources in the room.


“I would like to see the Republican convention become healthier and more reflective of our Republican Party,” House Majority Leader Will Mortenson told Forum News Service before the vote. “The lieutenant governor vote from last year showed us we need changes to make that happen. The convention pick should reflect the views of Republicans across the state, not a small group of party bosses.”

Precinct committeemen are the elected officials closest to individual voters; in theory, these individuals are responsible for grassroots organizing, including registering and contacting voters.

However, according to the party’s Bylaws Committee, these duties have been “substantially neglected” since the “duties of the position are not aligned with the primary means of their recruitment.”

The proposal would have replaced those precinct-level delegates with at-large county delegates scaled in terms of county population.

“I absolutely think that certain people are recruited to vote for certain candidates,” Sen. Tom Pischke of Dell Rapids, one of the most conservative legislators in the Senate, said. “That's been going on for a long time, not just here in 2022.”

What really changed things, Pischke and several other opponents to the proposed changes said, was the results of the convention last year, where 687 delegates, the majority of them precinct committeemen, descended on Watertown and upended the outcomes expected by party leaders.

In addition to an upset by current Secretary of State Monae Johnson over the incumbent Steve Barnett, challengers David Natvig and Steve Haugaard came close to unseating Attorney General Marty Jackley and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, respectively.

Opponents to changing the primary structure, representing the more conservative wing of a South Dakota Republican Party searching for unity, stand outside the closed morning session of the State Central Committee on Jan. 14 in Pierre.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Yet legislators keen on changing how the convention operates have a backup plan.


“I'm hopeful that the state party comes up with changes to improve the situation,” Mortenson said before the decision. “I would rather a legislative fix not be needed, but that's up to them.”

With the State Central Committee spoken for on the issue, that backup plan takes the form of Senate Bill 40, which would allow candidates for governor to select their lieutenant governor running mate and would remove the attorney general and secretary of state elections from the convention slate, moving them to a statewide primary.

“I believe for these offices all Republicans should have a choice in these nominations, and I’m happy to support it,” Rep. Becky Drury of Rapid City, a co-sponsor of the legislation, wrote in her weekly press release on Jan. 13.

The State Central Committee during its closed session passed a motion to have the party’s executive board draft a resolution opposing the legislation as currently constructed.

Some pponents say the legislation would take away a major incentive for precinct committeemen to get involved in the first place, leading to even less manpower for door-knocking and other important election season activities.

“The precinct delegates are the grassroots, the lifeblood of the party,” Pischke said. “So in my opinion, you need to be campaigning to that group, and getting their buy-in to become the candidate for secretary of state or attorney general, whatever it may be, to win their trust at the convention.”

But Sen. David Johnson of Rapid City, the prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate, says bringing the legislation is about starting a conversation. Considering the lengthy discussion of the proposed legislation he says took place alongside the precinct delegate vote during the morning’s closed session, Johnson said he feels like it has already succeeded.

“That’s the entire purpose. It will be discussed with other legislators, it’s going to be discussed with the party and the executive board, and I'm hearing people today,” Johnson said. “I'd say right now it's about a 50/50. But ultimately, my decision will be made with party leadership at the at the legislature and with party leadership here at the state GOP.”


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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