SD Senate’s GOP power balance at stake: 5 primary races to watch

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – In the Senate chamber of the South Dakota Legislature, a little institutional knowledge goes a long way.

Extreme measures emanating from the House of Representatives are often killed in Senate committees or amended on the floor, establishing an “adult in the room” element of political perspective in Pierre.

The question, of course, is which perspective has the upper hand. South Dakota Republicans are dealing with an intraparty schism between establishment “moderates” with pro-business views and far-right factions such as the Freedom Caucus, touting limited government and election reform.

Control of the Senate in deep-red South Dakota is not a party equation, though Democrats would love to reduce the GOP’s 31-4 edge in seats. Power is calculated by conservative ideologies and voting blocs within the Republican caucus, and there’s ground to be gained heading into the June 4 primary elections.

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“These primaries will likely dictate the political philosophy of Senate leadership moving forward,” said veteran Watertown legislator Lee Schoenbeck, the outgoing Senate president pro tempore who is not running for re-election.

Schoenbeck is one of 14 senators – 13 Republicans and one Democrat – who have either reached their term limits or decided not to run in 2024. The list includes five members of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, including longtime Canton legislator Jim Bolin and state GOP chair John Wiik.

That means at least 40% of the Senate’s 35 members will be new when seated for the 2025 legislative session, though some will likely have previous experience in the House.

The leadership void is notable, said Schoenbeck, but “the nature and design of the Senate is that there’s turnover and then new people rise to the challenge.”

The rotunda at the state capitol in Pierre.
“These primaries will likely dictate the political philosophy of Senate leadership moving forward,” said Lee Schoenbeck, the outgoing Senate president pro tempore who is not running for re-election. (Photo: Argus Leader)

18 Senate primaries on GOP side

Intraparty friction was evident in the nature of bills killed in Senate committees last session, from efforts to criminalize drag shows to codifying the disclosure of cast vote records from machine tabulators. More far-right influence could move similar bills onto the floor, widening the party divide.

The changing of the guard and its political consequence has sparked competition.

There are Republican Senate primaries in 18 districts coming in June, compared to 15 in 2022. There is just one primary on the Democratic side, allowing those candidates to focus on the Nov. 5 general election.

Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree of Madison faces a District 8 primary challenge from Minnesota transplant and Elkton resident Rick Weible, a prominent adviser to the South Dakota Canvassing electoral activist group.

Crabtree is expected to survive that race, but other ideological clashes are too close to call. Schoenbeck has been active behind the scenes recruiting and financially supporting establishment candidates to stem the tide against far-right contenders he once labeled “whack-a-doodles.”

Bolin also expects to get involved, pointing to the future of the Senate and its reputation as a chamber that values policy discussion over partisan drama.

“The Senate has been a legislative body that moves along pretty efficiently, without a lot of blowups,” said Bolin, who is term-limited in District 16. “It would be nice to keep it that way.”

With that in mind, here are five Republican Senate primaries that could help define the upper chamber in the 2025 session and beyond.

South Dakota District 3

(Brown County)

There’s a generational battle brewing in Aberdeen, where 70-year-old retired businessman Carl Perry is looking to shift from the House to Senate.

Perry served three terms in Pierre and now seeks the Senate seat formerly held by political ally Al Norvstrup, who is term-limited and toggling back to the House.

Carl Perry and Katie Wasnok
Carl Perry and Katie Washnok are facing off in the District 3 Republican primary. (Photos: CarlPerry.org and KatieforSD.org.

Seeking to break the cycle is Katie Washnok, president of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and chairman of the Brown County Republicans.

Washnok, who owns a motorcycle customization business with her husband, is taking the business-friendly and “fresh ideas” lane against Perry, who embraced landowner rights against carbon pipeline projects during the 2024 session.

Washnok has cited finding new water sources for the Aberdeen community as her top priority.

She’s well-connected in GOP circles and speaks from the perspective of a young woman raising a family. Perry keeps a high profile at Aberdeen events and might have the edge with older voters, but he’ll have to run on his record in Pierre.

“There is some stomach up here for a change in blood,” said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. “There’s a sense that (District 3’s) legislative delegation has been ineffective and simply warming a seat. The question is whether Washnok can turn that into a winning message.”

Quote from Jon Schaff

South Dakota District 4

(Clark, Codington, Deuel, Grant, Hamlin and Roberts counties) 

Nowhere is the trend of establishment vs. far right more pronounced than in this district of rural counties surrounding Watertown, where longtime state Rep. Fred Deutch is running for Senate.

He seeks the seat formerly held by Wiik, the state GOP chair, who was elected in 2016 and is term-limited.

Deutsch, a retired chiropractor, has built a political profile around anti-transgender legislation such as the bathroom bill of 2016 that aimed to bar trans students from using school restrooms that don’t match their biological sex.

The proposed legislation made national headlines and was vetoed by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

Deutsch also sought unsuccessfully in 2020 to make it a felony for medical professionals to provide transgender health care to minors, clashing with much of the South Dakota medical community. A separate measure restricting gender-affirming care for minors passed in 2023.

Fred Deutsch and Stephanie Sauder
Fred Deutsch and Stephanie Sauder are running for District 4 Senate. (Photos: FredDeutsch.com and Stephanie Sauder for State Senate on Facebook)

His opponent is Stephanie Sauder, a longtime educator and former mayor of Bryant who was elected to the House in 2022. Sauder has the support of Gov. Kristi Noem, who has talked publicly about Sauder babysitting her as a farm kid in Castlewood.

Noem’s daughter, Kassidy, as well as Crabtree and House Speaker Hugh Bartels were part of a November 2023 fundraiser for Sauder at the home of Schoenbeck, crystallizing the candidate’s establishment credentials.

Sauder supported pro-ethanol pipeline legislation in the 2024 session in the face of protests over eminent domain, further endearing herself to mainstream Republicans.

South Dakota District 16

(Lincoln, Turner and Union counties)

This is another case of a conservative legislator getting term-limited from the House and seeking new horizons in the Senate, potentially changing the makeup of the chamber.

The candidate is Kevin Jensen, a former House majority whip who unsuccessfully challenged Wiik for Republican party chair last year. The former Canton School Board member and “lifetime member” of the National Rifle Association also supported primary challenges to Noem and Schoenbeck in 2022.

Jensen has opposed plans to build a state men’s prison in rural Lincoln County and also criticized pipeline projects using eminent domain for carbon capture. He received a score of 74% from the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce on support of business-related bills in 2023, compared to 100% for Bolin.

Jensen faces a stiff challenge for the seat that Bolin held as part of his 16 years as a legislator. The sprawling district map includes Canton, Lennox and Beresford and stretches westward to Marion, offering a contrast in constituencies.

Eric Hohman and Kevin Jensen are running for District 16 Senate. (Photos: Eric Hohman for SD Senate on Facebook SD Legislature)

Jensen’s opponent, Eric Hohman, is a fixture in the Canton community, where he was publisher of the Sioux Valley News and served on the school board and community foundation. He manages credit services at First Premier Bank and is expected to have the financial support needed for a competitive race.

“There’s a pretty clear division between these two,” said Bolin, adding that the race could hinge on hand-to-hand campaigning to engage voters. “There’s a lot of ground to cover in this district.”

South Dakota District 25

(Minnehaha and Moody counties)

Political campaigns are made by seizing the moment. For Jordan Youngberg, a former state senator looking for a return to Pierre, this district north of Sioux Falls that includes Dell Rapids, Flandreau and Garretson represented an opportunity.

Youngberg, a Dell Rapids native who now lives with his family in Colman, previously served District 8, which includes Lake, Miner, Moody and Sanborn counties. He rose to Senate majority whip but resigned in 2020, after which Noem appointed Crabtree to fill the seat.

Tom Pischke and Jordan Youngberg are running for District 25 Senate. (Photos: South Dakota Legislature)

Youngberg is challenging District 25 incumbent Tom Pischke, whose voting record makes him one of the most conservative members of the Senate, according to Citizens for Liberty, a Rapid City-based organization that supports limited government.

The group gave Pischke a 2024 voting approval mark of 80%, second among all senators behind Julie Frye-Mueller of Rapid City. He scored 90.5% in 2023. The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce gave Pischke a score of 56% on business-related bills in 2023, last among Sioux Falls-area senators.

Pischke made headlines for his defense of Frye-Mueller, his seatmate in Pierre, when she was censured by the Senate in February 2023 for workplace harassment involving a Legislative Research Council staffer. The staffer said Frye-Mueller harshly criticized the staffer’s decision to have her baby vaccinated, saying the baby could “get Down syndrome or autism” or even die.

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Pischke threatened to file a criminal complaint against Schoenbeck and the other 26 senators who initially voted to suspend Frye-Muller, but Hughes County prosecutors declined to take the case.

It was not the only run-in for Pischke, who served three House terms before winning his Senate seat in 2022. He was banned from the House floor in March 2024 for placing a bottle of syrup on another lawmaker’s desk after that legislator motioned to defeat a commemoration co-sponsored by Pischke to celebrate Aunt Jemima as a “true American success story that was erased from history.”

South Dakota District 30

(Custer, Fall River and Pennington counties)

Frye-Mueller has represented one of South Dakota’s most conservative districts since 2016, when she entered the House along with fellow Republican Tim Goodwin.

She switched over to the Senate in 2020 and survived a tough primary against Goodwin in 2022 to stay there, trumpeting election reform, landowner rights and anti-vaccine legislation.

She holds a perfect rating from Citizens for Liberty, the Rapid City-based organization for which her husband serves as an unpaid lobbyist. That runs counter to her score of 42% on business-related bills in 2023 from Elevate Rapid City, a contrast that could rise to the surface this primary season.

Frye-Mueller is facing challenges from Republicans Forrest Foster and Amber Hulse, with Hulse drawing much of the attention so far. She’s a former Miss South Dakota who interned at the White House during the Trump administration and has a law degree from Georgetown University.

Forrest Foster, Julie Frye-Mueller and Amber Hulse are running for District 30 Senate. (Photos: Ballotpedia, SD Legislature and Amber Hulse for Senate)

Hulse, a Hot Springs native who also clerked for Noem when she was the state’s U.S. Representative, talked about “fresh leadership” in announcing her candidacy in December 2023.

There’s no secret among moderate Republicans that turning down the drama surrounding Frye-Mueller would be welcomed. Whether the voters in District 30 agree could be a sign of where the Senate is headed for the next two years.

This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, an independent, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at sdnewswatch.org and sign up for an email every few days to get stories as soon as they’re published. Contact Stu Whitney at  at stu.whitney@sdnewswatch.org

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