South Dakota Right To Life Endorses…For Secretary of State?

Robin Marty

South Dakota's most prominent anti-choice advocacy group is putting out an unheard of endorsement in the Secretary of State race, leaving voters to wonder why?

There’s a saying that all politics is local. But it seems as if this year, the saying could be modified to “all local politics is about abortion.”  Nowhere is this clearer than in South Dakota, where the question of reproductive rights stances has trickled all the way down to the Secretary of State race.

Of course, South Dakota already has a long history of making political hay out of reproductive health.  The 2006 and 2008 attempts to eliminate access to abortion in the state have proven that to at least one segment of the citizenry in the state, there no issue more important than eliminating a woman’s right to choose. 

It’s with this mentality that South Dakota Right to Life (SDRL) seems to have made the unprecedented move of endorsing and advocating for a Secretary of State candidate this cycle, backing Republican Jason Gant. 

According to the SDRL 2010 voter guide, Gant, a state legislator, has an extensive history of anti-choice legislation, including:

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  • Opposed legislation seeking to allow human embryonic stem cell research in SD.
  • Co-sponsored and supported legislation requiring abortion facilities to offer sonograms to women seeking abortions.
  • Consistently voted for pro-life measures throughout his six years in SD Senate, including the SD Right to Life-drafted Trigger Ban* in 2005.

 “I believe whole-heartedly in the sanctity of human life, especially the unborn, the elderly, the chronically ill, and the terminally ill.  Respecting life is an endeavor that must never be diminished.  I am pro-life and I vote pro-life.”

Meanwhile, Gant’s opponent, Ben Nesselhuf, has a “consistently” anti-prolife record that even includes being the “prime sponsor of legislation seeking to allow deadly human embryonic stem cell research” in the state.  Nesselhuf’s unforgivable stance on abortion, according to SDRL?  He believes “Abortion is a decision that should be left up to a woman, her doctor, her partner, and her god.” (SDRL uses the lowercase “g.”)

Gant should probably consider himself lucky to have gotten so much favorable support from the group, considering they actually had a brief moment of butting heads in 2007, when Gant agreed that the state ban on abortion was good enough with narrow rape and mother’s health exceptions and SDRL said not a chance.  A now-archived article from the Los Angeles Times reported:

This spring, South Dakota’s Legislature considered new restrictions on abortion after voters rejected a ban that contained no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

Republican state Sen. Jason Gant argued for a ban with narrow exceptions, to appease voters who had been queasy about the earlier approach. “When you can stop 90% of abortions, that’s pretty good. We can try again at a later date to get the other 10%,” Gant said.

But the state’s Right to Life group opposed the exceptions, arguing that “babies conceived of rape and incest deserve to live too,” said Lena Jones, the organization’s office manager.

The deadlock killed the ban before it came to a vote in the state Senate.

And after the ban was defeated at the polls, Gant was quoted in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader as saying “that the state voiced [an] opinion and ‘we need to just go with that.’”  Not exactly the sort of pro-life rhetoric that would get SDRL up on its feet for an endorsement.

But of course, the real question is, why does anyone even care about the abortion stance of the Secretary of State in the first place?  After all, the Secretary of State doesn’t introduce bills or vote on legislation that could further an anti-choice agenda.  Why would SDRL be so interested in going out on a limb to take a race they never endorse for, and then pick a candidate they haven’t seen totally eye to eye on in the past, and paint him as the champion of ending abortions in the state?

Nesselhuf is just as puzzled by the endorsement, but believes it may be a sign that he has the best chance to win his race of any of the pro-choice candidates in the state.  Via email, Nesselhuf stated:

The SDRL takes a very hard and aggressive stance against anyone who doesn’t fall in line.  That is part of why they have success in the legislature but not with the majority of the public.

I also think that this is a testament to our chances of success in this election.  We have been working for almost a year and very aggressively getting our message out.  Many South Dakota political observers believe we stand the best chance of victory of any statewide race.  The far right is pulling out all the stops to try and derail this campaign.

Is the group simply looking for an endorsement it can put in its “win” column, or looking to settle a score with a politician that has spent ten years in the legislature, all of them backing policies that the group would find morally repugnant? 

Or is it because Gant is himself making reproductive issues part of the race?  Although he has spoken little of it on the trail, his campaign website makes it very clear that he not only is staunchly anti-choice, but that he sees it as as much of a “South Dakota Issue” as healthcare, agriculture and education.

One key platform of his election campaign, however, is “election reform,” which in his case translates into making sure less South Dakota residents have voting access.  Gant is claiming that voter fraud is rampant, and is campaigning against same day registration and eliminating photo id requirements at the polls, something he appears to believe is a plot concocted by the “ACLU and George Soros.”  Voting restrictions are laws that have traditionally benefited Republicans at the polls, and to SDRL could signify getting more anti-choice lawmakers into office.

Regardless of the real motivation behind this unusual endorsement, South Dakota Right to Life has thrown themselves even further into the ring as potential political kingmakers in the state.  We will learn in November if this new move pays off.

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Secretary of State, South Dakota

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