SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson won in South Dakota on Tuesday. But with Republicans long dominating the state's elections, the most interesting development was the passage of separate proposals to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. Election officials received a historic number of absentee ballots, raising the possibility that tallying the results could take longer than usual.
Some of the key races and ballot items that shaped this year's campaign:
Another presidential election, another Republican winner — in South Dakota, at least. President Donald Trump put the state’s three electoral votes in his column on Tuesday, just as every Republican before him has done since 1968. With the state seen as safe for the GOP, neither Trump nor Joe Biden invested much time or energy in the sharply conservative state — although Trump did enjoy a July 3 trip to Mount Rushmore for a massive fireworks display.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds has won re-election to his second term in South Dakota. The former governor from Fort Pierre defeated Democrat Dan Ahlers, a former state legislator. Rounds won despite scaling back his campaign activity during the coronavirus pandemic, citing health concerns for his wife, Jean, who underwent treatment for cancer earlier this year. Rounds touted his record of advocating for South Dakota’s agricultural community.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson was re-elected to South Dakota’s lone House seat after Democrats failed to field a candidate. Johnson did have one challenger — Libertarian Randy “Uriah” Luallin. Luallin toured the state but struggled to raise enough money to launch a significant campaign.
Johnson said Tuesday night the coronavirus pandemic made the campaign “more odd than the competition,” and, while he plans to keep focusing on rural issues, COVID-19 has “got to be at the top of the congressional to-do list when we return.”
South Dakota had two marijuana proposals on the ballot — one for medical use and one for recreational — and advocates pitched them to voters as a package deal. Even so, they must have been stunned to see voters say yes to recreational marijuana, putting South Dakota among just a handful of states to take such a step. After all, the state’s voters soundly rejected medical marijuana four years ago and it was a struggle simply to legalize industrial hemp. Advocates for recreational marijuana leaned on an argument that legalization would cut arrests for marijuana possession. They had powerful opponents in the state’s Chamber of Commerce, but pot supporters raised roughly five times more money than their opponents. The measure approved Tuesday allows people over age 21 to have and distribute up to 1 ounce of pot. So what’s next? The Legislature gets until April to set up a program to tax and regulate the drug.
Drey Samuelson, political director of the group that led the push, told The Associated Press early Wednesday that people's attitudes are shifting dramatically on cultural issues, and it will be “up to the country to interpret” the impact of legalization in a conservative state.
“I do think it's fair to say it will surprise a lot of people. I had a lot of friends say to me, you’re crazy, you’re wasting your time," Samuelson said.
South Dakota voters have approved medical marijuana in a big sign of how far the drug has come in public acceptance. Just four years ago, voters soundly rejected the idea. But with several states nationally making recreational marijuana legal, the landscape has changed. Still, even legalizing medical marijuana is a significant jump in South Dakota after voters solidly rejected the idea just four years ago. The state also saw a protracted struggle between lawmakers and Noem to get industrial hemp legalized, with Noem arguing it would be akin to legalizing marijuana. South Dakota now joins neighboring states including Minnesota and North Dakota in making marijuana OK for several qualifying medical conditions.
Melissa Mentele, executive director of the pro-medical marijuana group New Approach South Dakota, said education and personal stories helped change people’s minds about the issue and noted that voting was strong in both rural and urban areas. “We touched every corner of the state,” she said.
Voters also approved sports betting in South Dakota’s gambling town of Deadwood. The Legislature passed a resolution to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. Lawmakers argued it bolsters tax revenues and keeps Deadwood competitive with neighboring states like Iowa that have rolled out sports betting after the Supreme Court paved the way for legal wagering two years ago. Tribal casinos also are allowed to offer sports betting with the passage of the measure.
The state’s dominant party picked up a seat in a key Senate race when Republican challenger Michael Roth defeated Democrat incumbent Susan Wismer in a northeastern district. The GOP was hoping to gain two House seats in Sioux Falls, one of the state’s southeastern cities that in recent years have seen a shift in demographics and political preferences. Democrats have seen their numbers dwindle in the last decade.
Robert Crump, 43, who works in marketing in the Rapid City area, split his votes on separate marijuana measures by supporting medical cannabis and rejecting recreational. He said he voted in favor of recreational marijuana when he lived in Colorado eight years ago but thinks it would hurt business and tourism in the family-friendly Black Hills area.
“Trust me, I was a young college student once too,” said Crump, who described himself as somewhat libertarian. “I was concerned that our quaint little downtown would just become nothing but pot shops and drive some of the families away. Let’s take care of the medical people first and maybe find our own way of decriminalizing it without turning little Rapid City into Boulder north.”
Bill Stocker, 61, a retired Sioux Falls police officer, voted for both marijuana measures in part because he believes the laws are too harsh and in part because of his experience in law enforcement.
“I never came in contact with anyone who either possessed marijuana or who was high on marijuana who wasn’t compliant. That never happened,” he said. “We can’t be giving people a criminal record for having a plant. Come on, man.”