SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota conservatives stymied on recent high-profile measures by Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard are eyeing the end of his last term in early 2019, betting their preferred policies will fare better under either of two Republican front-runners looking to replace him.
Since his 2014 re-election, Daugaard has won a pair of tax increases, supported expanding the Medicaid health program and blocked gun-rights and transgender "bathroom" bills, much to the dismay of conservatives in this heavily GOP state. They're predicting that the top two Republicans vying to succeed Daugaard — Attorney General Marty Jackley and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem — will be more supportive of their ideas.
"There are a number of conservative legislators in South Dakota that are frustrated right now, that are saying we just have to ride out Gov. Daugaard's last remaining year," said state Rep. Lynne DiSanto, who this year sponsored a bill that would have loosened restrictions on carrying concealed handguns. "I think that Gov. Daugaard has pretty clearly shown his colors — especially during his second term."
Daugaard vetoed DiSanto's proposal that would have let people carry concealed handguns without a permit shortly before neighboring North Dakota's governor signed a "constitutional carry" law; Daugaard also rejected such a measure in 2012. In 2016, Daugaard vetoed a bill that would have restricted which bathrooms transgender students could use at school, saying it didn't address "any pressing issue" and that such decisions were best left to local schools. Supporters scuttled a similar proposal this year after he threatened to do it again.
Jackley and Noem have already offered support for both ideas. Backers have said they plan to wait until 2019 before pushing them again.
"I certainly think they recognize that the hill has been too high for them and probably still remains so for at least another year," Daugaard said. "Whether it remains so afterwards — time will tell."
The 64-year-old Daugaard's final legislative session as governor starts Jan. 9; he can't run again next year because of term limits.
Ed Randazzo, director of political operations at Family Heritage Alliance Action, an influential nonprofit that supports bathroom legislation, said he thinks both Jackley and Noem are generally friendlier to what he called "faith, family and freedom" issues.
"Generally speaking, we think the governor's office will be more receptive to our issues," he said.
That wouldn't be the case if state Sen. Billie Sutton becomes the first Democratic governor elected in South Dakota since 1974. The Senate Democratic leader has said he could serve as a check on the Republican-controlled Legislature and opposes the bathroom legislation.
Terri Bruce, a transgender man who fought against the bathroom bill last year, said he's worried about what's to come after Daugaard leaves office. Critics say that such measures are discriminatory; supporters insist they're trying to protect students' privacy.
"I think Daugaard is a moderate Republican," Bruce said. "I hope that by that time rolls around, that it will be such a non-issue that we don't even go there."
Jackley's campaign earlier this year hired the founder of the Family Heritage Alliance to work as state political director for the campaign, likely a move to court conservative voters ahead of the June 2018 primary for governor.
Daugaard, whose 45-point margin of victory in 2014 was the largest of any governor in state history, takes pride in South Dakota's financial health. The same governor who orchestrated a massive cut in state spending to eliminate a budget deficit early in his first term has since championed tax hikes to fund roads and wage hikes for teachers.
Spokesmen for both Jackley and Noem say they would oppose tax increases if elected governor.
But Daugaard has supported some ideas backed by conservative lawmakers. This year, he signed a bill to give legal protections to faith-based organizations that refuse based on their religious beliefs to place children in certain households. In 2016, he signed into law a 20-week abortion ban.
"I'm sure there are some who see me as too conservative and some who see me as too liberal, and maybe that isn't a bad spot to be in," Daugaard said.