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Barnett’s defeat offers look at nomination process, state of GOP

Secretary of State Steve Barnett
State of South Dakota
Secretary of State Steve Barnett

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Steve Barnett said the right things when we talked. He was the good Republican, even in defeat.

A bit of a stinging defeat, I would think, and one that could change the professional direction of his life. He’ll have to see what comes next in a few months, after he leaves his job as South Dakota secretary of state.

“I’ve enjoyed my public service going back to my work with Sen. Thune, my eight years as state auditor and my term as secretary of state,” said Barnett, a former staffer for Sen. John Thune who was elected to two four-year terms as state auditor before winning a four-year-term as secretary of state.

Barnett feels good about the work he did, particularly during his term as the state’s top elections official.

“We had to run a statewide presidential election during a pandemic, and I thought we did that quite successfully,” he said. “It was difficult to find poll workers, to find poll locations. I think our communication was good, our messaging was good. And I sure appreciate the people willing to step up and work during a pandemic.”

So there was plenty for the well-experienced incumbent to feel good about heading into his party’s state convention in Watertown in late June. But these are different times, especially in the Republican Party. Really different.

And Barnett hasn’t been dancing to the tune of Trumpism and election denial like some in his party seem to demand. He has simply been doing his job, in a reasonable Republican way.

Then came the party convention, and an influx of unfamiliar delegates. And a surprise. He lost.

How things went wrong for the incumbent

As you probably know, in South Dakota secretary of state nominees for major political parties aren’t decided through a statewide primary election, though they probably should be. They’re selected by party delegates at the state conventions, which were once pretty predictable affairs when it came to candidate nominations. Especially for Republicans.

Lately, though, things have gotten a little wacky. That’s how Jason Ravnsborg, despite having no real courtroom experience as a prosecutor, was selected over two much-better qualified candidates for attorney general at the GOP state convention in 2018. And it’s how Monae Johnson, whose relevant work experience is a trifle next to Barnett’s broad resume, was selected over the incumbent to represent the GOP on the November ballot.

There were some wacky near-falls for noted candidates at the convention, too. We’ll talk about them in a minute.

But back to Barnett and a convention historically dominated by experienced delegates with long ties to party functions and party work. History doesn’t matter much these days. And the June convention was dominated by a web of coordinated newcomers interested more in fringe ideology, and maybe some personal payback, than in selecting qualified nominees.

Many of those newcomers have what I’d call extreme political philosophies. They brought an anti-establishment personality, promotion of the Big Lie of election fraud in 2020, and in some cases a resentment toward Barnett for not playing their voter-fraud conspiracy game.

Monae Johnson seems willing to play that game. If she weren’t, she almost certainly wouldn’t have won 61 percent of the delegate votes to 39 percent for Barnett. She campaigned to the delegates on “election integrity” and “election fraud,” which is Trump-speak for “Biden stole the election” and “if Democrats win, it must be fraud.”

Which is, unfortunately, a pretty effective call to action and votes in the Republican Party these days, and not just at state conventions. National poll after poll indicates that two-thirds to 70 percent of Republicans believe the Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election.

Even our own governor called that election “rigged.” And while she doesn’t seem to use that term publicly anymore, neither does she retract or reject it or say Biden’s win was fair and legitimate. She prefers to say only that Trump had his day in court and didn’t prevail, and Biden is president.

New faces in the delegate crew with ideological goals

South Dakota Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson have all said there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election that would have altered the outcome. They said that after extensive reviews and investigations across the nation failed to reveal any widespread fraud, and after dozens of court actions on behalf of Donald Trump failed.

Rounds said Biden won in 2020 in a fair election, “as fair as we have seen.” For that truth-speaking, he has been belittled and harangued by Trump and some Trump supporters.

There were few voices like Rounds’ among the GOP crew that assembled itself to nominate Monae Johnson.

I’m not here to argue that Steve Barnett is a perfect secretary of state. I didn’t follow him closely or cover him day to day. He and other state officials were called out by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol for not meeting their legal obligations in registering Native American voters.

But Barnett seems honest and smart. And he did run an election through a difficult pandemic cycle. He also rejected conspiracy theories about the state voting system being hooked up to the internet. It isn’t, but that’s the kind of crazy stuff that gets part of the GOP all lathered up.

All told, the secretary of state office seems to be running well under Barnett’s management.

Some argue that Barnett needed to prepare better and work harder to win over delegates at the convention. Maybe. But there was that flood of newbies. And it’s impossible to reason with some people.

Across the nation, election deniers are targeting secretary of state offices and reasonable office holders. And the delegate system at the GOP convention here in South Dakota seemed to be stacked against Barnett as much as it was against common sense and truth.

Even so, I was surprised — I’m not shocked by much that happens in the GOP these days — back in June when I saw on some social media platform that Barnett had lost to someone whose name I didn’t recognize. Apparently, Monae Johnson worked at Catholic Social Services here in Rapid City for a few months while my wife worked there. But if I said more than a “hello” to her, I don’t remember it.

Anyway, I double-checked on a mainstream media platform back in June and was surprised not just by Barnett’s loss but also by a couple of near misses with other candidates in the voting.

One was the GOP nomination for attorney general, where Pierre lawyer Marty Jackley squeaked past David Natvig 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent.

Old hand Jackley won, but not by much

On Jackley, let’s recap: After a decade in private practice, he was nominated to be the U.S. attorney for South Dakota by Sen. Thune and unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate. He served three years as the state’s top federal prosecutor, then a new president brought Democrat Brendan Johnson to the job.

That same year, Jackley was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Rounds to serve the rest of the state attorney general’s term for Larry Long, who had been appointed to a circuit judge position. Jackley was then elected to two four-year terms as South Dakota’s top state prosecutor.

Limited by the state constitution to two consecutive four-year terms, Jackley ran for governor in 2018. He lost in the primary to Kristi Noem, who went on to beat Democrat Billie Sutton in a close election in November. Jackley endorsed Noem in her reelection bid this year and she endorsed him for attorney general.

Did Noem’s endorsement help or hurt Jackley at the convention? Good question. Probably both.

It’s likely that a fair number of Noem haters were delegates at the convention.

And Natvig? Well, while Jackley has been running for his old job for more than a year, lining up law enforcement support across the state and working party delegates. Natvig announced for AG just a few weeks before the GOP convention.

Natvig came to the convention having worked as a lawyer in Brule County, including time as state’s attorney there. Then he was selected in 2019 by the new South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to head the state Division of Criminal Investigation.

For Ravnsborg, working delegates trumped experience

Ravnsborg had won the AG nomination over two more-qualified Republicans at the party convention in the summer of 2018. Then he beat another more-qualified prosecutor in Democrat Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney in South Dakota who also had served over many years as assistant U.S. attorney and chief deputy U.S. attorney.

But Ravnsborg spent more than a year prior to the 2018 convention recruiting and persuading Republican delegates. Short on prosecution experience, he was long on politicking, working the party nomination system and reaching out to disaffected party members. And, along with miscues by GOP opponents John Fitzgerald and Lance Russell, that work won him the AG job.

But on the evening of Sept. 12, 2020, Ravnsborg allowed his Ford Taurus to drift onto the shoulder of U.S. Highway 14 just west of Highmore, where he hit and killed Joe Boever. The 55-year-old Highmore man was walking on the shoulder and carrying a flashlight that was turned on. Ravnsborg eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges related to the accident and settled a civil suit with members of Boever’s family.

But because of his questionable behavior on the night of the accident and during the investigation, Ravnsborg was impeached by the South Dakota House of Representatives. Then he was removed from office by the state Senate.

Gov. Noem appointed Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo to fill the remainder of Ravnsborg’s term as AG. And on his first day in that job, Vargo, a former assistant U.S. attorney, fired Natvig along with Tim Bormann, who served as Ravnsborg’s chief of staff.

So much for the AG stuff. On to the lieutenant governor nomination.

The party also goes through the nomination process for that position at the convention every four years. But it’s typically assumed that the winner of the statewide primary for governor will choose the lieutenant governor nominee. And that choice will be affirmed at the convention.

Haugaard fell hard in primary but ran again at convention

That’s especially true when both are incumbents, as Gov. Noem and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden were this year. Noem easily defeated Sioux Falls lawyer Steve Haugaard, a former legislator who served as speaker of the House, 77 percent to 23 percent in the statewide GOP primary election in early June.

But a few weeks later at the state convention, in a candidacy that came about a day before the convention, Haugaard challenged Rhoden, which gave me another “Huh?” moment.

But Rhoden, a former state legislator, welder, and rancher from Union Center, won 56 percent to 44 percent. Still, the challenge reflected the split in the GOP.

Some of the party insurrection stemmed from Noem’s bristly relationship with some members of her party. Some of those hard feelings are based on personality conflicts. Some are based on Noem’s high-profile personality with national conservative media and her wandering ways with travel outside the state.

Some are based on her sometimes-questionable use of a state airplane newly purchased for her use. And some are based on her personal involvement in helping her daughter obtain a state appraiser certification.

Some, too, has come from Noem’s outspoken criticism of Ravnsborg after he hit and killed Joe Boever. Days after the accident, Noem reached out to Ravnsborg through a staffer and asked him to take a leave of absence during the investigation. Ravnsborg refused.

Later Noem had state public-safety officials release video recordings of agents questioning Ravnsborg during the investigation. And she called for him to resign.

Some lawmakers were offended by her actions, arguing that she was involved personally in the case. Noem said she was doing the right thing, for Joe Boever, his family, and the state.

A pro-Ravnsborg faction clearly coalesced during the Republican convention. And it might live on to the next one. Some people have long memories and enduring grudges.

All of that is old news to Barnett, of course, more than two months after the party convention. But I’ve been mulling it over off and on since June, and finally reached out to him to chat.

He is still at work in the South Dakota Capitol, with four months to go until the new secretary of state takes over.

If history and the huge Republican edge in registered voters is an indication, the new secretary of state will be Monae Johnson. Although her limited experience and fringe political affiliations could raise questions among mainstream Republicans that might help Democratic nominee Tom Cool of Sioux Falls a boost.

Remembering Papa Joe and the Republican Party that was

Steve Barnett doesn’t have to worry about a general election this year. He says he and his wife, Nicole, have loved raising their four children in Pierre. And he is measured in his tone and comments about losing the GOP nomination.

Even more than what he said, however, was what he left unsaid. Clearly, he’s disappointed and frustrated. He lost in a way unlikely to have been foreseen by his grandfather, Joe Barnett, one of the longest-serving and most influential lawmakers in South Dakota history.

Like his grandson, Joe Barnett was a faithful Catholic (Joe and wife Kathy had nine children) with solid conservative credentials who today would likely be considered a moderate. Heck, I’m pretty sure that some of day’s “Republicans” would call Joe a RINO, ridiculous as that would be.

Joe Barnett served in the South Dakota House for 19 years, working with seven governors, five of them Republican. (Although one of the two Democrats, Harvey Wollman, only served the last half-year of Dick Kneip’s third term.)

Joe Barnett was smart. He was resourceful. He was reasonable. He could be a power broker but also a deal maker.

Papa Joe, some called him. And he certainly took a parental approach to his Republican caucus and the job of leading lawmakers in working with each other and with governors to pass, and sometimes block, targeted pieces of legislation.

Far from being an ideologue, Barnett was a pragmatist who got things done. Lots of things. Usually without much drama.

Joe Barnett was one of the best state legislators I ever covered. But I only covered him for five or six years. My brother, Terry, who reported on 40 legislative sessions and more legislators than could easily be counted, covered Joe for 16 or 17 years. And Terry counts Joe Barnett among the top five state lawmakers he ever knew.

Barnett was House majority leader when he died suddenly on May 1, 1985. He was just 53.

A sad goodbye and a loss that lingers

I covered his funeral and burial in Aberdeen for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. And I remember seeing Barnett’s assistant leader in the state House, New Underwood rancher/businessman Walter Dale Miller, at the gravesite. He was wearing a dark, western-cut suit and carrying his western hat in hand as he approached me with slow, long strides to shake my hand.

Walter Dale, as he was most often called, had tears in his eyes, for the loss of a valued colleague but also for a leader who made a real difference to the state.

I had tears in my eyes, too, which I suppose a reporter isn’t supposed to have. But I liked Joe Barnett. And I admired him. He treated me with respect, even when he couldn’t give me what I wanted for a story, even when he didn’t like something I wrote.

It was clear, also, that Joe Barnett respected my profession and what it meant to South Dakota and the nation. A loss? Oh my, yes. His passing was a loss that lingers.

All these years later, remembering that graveside exchange made me sad, but not just because we lost such a leader at such a young age. I’m also sad about where the party of Joe Barnett has gone over the last 37 years, and where it seems to be headed.

I think Steve Barnett is sad about that, too, even though he wouldn’t say so.

“I’ve enjoyed the ride. It has been good,” he said instead. “And I respect the voters’ decision.”

The good Republican, saying the right things, and moving on with his head up.

Is there another political run in Steve Barnett’s future? He isn’t sure. But I hope so.

Surely there’s still a place for Joe Barnett’s grandson in the South Dakota Republican Party.

At least, I hope there is, for the sake of the party and the state.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.