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Dennis Daugaard: Progressive?

Dennis Daugaard: Progressive?


In broad strokes, this is what I heard from Gov. Dennis Daugaard during his State of the State address Tuesday:

  • He wants to raise the sales tax.
  • He wants to use most of the revenue to increase average teacher pay.
  • He wants to expand eligibility for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.
  • He's really proud of his efforts to keep people out of prison.
  • He wants to do more to improve Native American education.
  • He wants to convert more land to state parks.

It's tempting to joke that South Dakota doesn't need a Democratic governor, because it already has one.

But that would oversimplify the approach of Daugaard, a Republican who self-identifies as a conservative. This is the same guy, after all, who shepherded sweeping cuts through the Legislature to eliminate a $127 million budget deficit during his first few months in office back in 2011.

So, perhaps "progressive Republican" is a more accurate label. He would probably shun such a description, as would most Republicans, simply because "progressive" is a word that has come to be almost exclusively applied to Democrats and liberals.

There was a time when many Republicans wore the "progressive" label proudly. Theodore Roosevelt was the ultimate progressive Republican, and his many devotees included legendary South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck.

Norbeck's accomplishments included the creation of Custer State Park, the founding of state-owned enterprises including a cement plant (which is now in private ownership but still operates in Rapid City), and leadership roles in convincing the federal government to fund the carving of Mount Rushmore and the creation of Badlands National Park. Norbeck also instigated a rural credits program that, while intended to help struggling farmers, ended up being a trainwreck of corruption that cost the state millions of dollars.

In other words, Norbeck was a Republican who presumably espoused the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility but wasn't afraid to work the levers of government in an attempt to improve life for his constituents and future generations of South Dakotans.  

Daugaard's speech sure made him sound more like that kind of a Republican, or at least more like a centrist, than the strident and uncompromising candidates who are leading the race for the GOP's presidential nomination. In fact, Daugaard reminds me an awful lot of another guy who was further toward the center than many in his own party: former U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat. 

Johnson had one of the longest and most electorally successful careers in South Dakota political history, and Daugaard's resume includes the biggest percentage-point margin of victory in any governor's race in South Dakota history. Peter Norbeck is one of the best-remembered figures from South Dakota's past. All three shied away from ideological extremism and took actions that weren't predicated solely by their party affiliation.

Perhaps other politicians would be wise to follow the center path blazed Tuesday by Daugaard, and by Johnson and Norbeck before him.

Contact Seth Tupper at

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