District 17 State Sen.-elect Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion decided it was time for a change Thursday.
The South Dakota Republican Party announced that afternoon that Nygaard switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Nygaard has served in the South Dakota House of Representatives from 2006-2010. Nygaard was successfully elected to the state Senate on Nov. 2.
It appears that Nygaard's failure to be elected to leadership positions by fellow Democrats in the South Dakota Senate last week may have contributed to his decision to join the Republicans, who vastly outnumber Democrats in both houses of the state Legislature.
Nygaard released the following statement:
"For the following reasons and the fact that my philosophy regarding government's role in society is more in line with the Republican Party, I have changed my party affiliation. In my new role as a member of the Republican State Senate Caucus, I will continue to reach across the aisle to find solutions that work for my district and the people of South Dakota.
This election brought a lot of changes across South Dakota and the nation. Voters sent a message to all elected officials – they want action and they want change. I firmly believe that I can represent my district's needs in Pierre more effectively as a member of the Republican Party. My past four years in the House have been marked by a bi-partisan approach to working for my district and the people of South Dakota.
I would like to thank my supporters for demonstrating their confidence in me by electing me to the South Dakota Senate this past election. With this victory comes the great responsibility to represent District 17 and the state at a time when we face some tough challenges. I am optimistic that our new governor is up to the challenges and he needs everyone's support."
With Nygaard's party switch, the South Dakota State Senate will be made up of 30 Republicans and five Democrats when it convenes in January, 2011.
In a press statement released Thursday by the South Dakota Republican Party, newly elected Senate Majority Leader Russell Olson said, "The Republican Caucus welcomes Sen. Nygaard. We recognize the responsibility of governing falls on the majority party, and we appreciate the vote of confidence that Senator Nygaard has demonstrated in his decision."
The South Dakota Democratic Party issued a press release of its own late Thursday afternoon, revealing that Nygaard was frustrated with his minority party colleagues in the state Senate, and also stating that the Vermillion lawmaker has let down District 17 voters who supported him:
The release states that Nygaard "lost a leadership election in the Democratic caucus last Saturday, and now the Democrats have lost him to the Republican Party. Still, party leaders say they wish him well and that they'll continue to work with him for the best interests of his district."
State Democratic Party Executive Director Erin McCarrick said in the release, "If Eldon wants to put personal gain above what we are fighting for as Democrats and above his district, then the Republican Party should work out just fine. When you don't get your way, the answer is not to take your toys to a different sand box and give up.
"Eldon has let down those who voted for him and those who worked for him, including the College Democrats who spent numerous hours volunteering. That is not the message to send to our youth. I don't think we'll have a problem challenging him and winning in 2012," she said.
"We wish Eldon well, and will continue to work with him as a colleague," said Sen. Jason Frerichs, the new Senate Democratic leader. "Eldon's frustration with the Democratic caucus obviously occurred during the leadership elections last week. But we fear that he will be equally frustrated as a Republican in the state Legislature, where the majority lawmakers often complain that they must too often follow the governor's lead or the party line when they would prefer to speak their own minds.
"Democratic legislators believe there is a lot of opportunity in their minority role," added Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, the House Democratic leader. "We can work for an agenda that we believe is right for South Dakota, rather than playing a backup role to the bureaucrats and the executive branch."
Hunhoff said Democrats, despite being outnumbered, have doggedly established the Pierre agenda in recent years on open government, fiscal responsibility, education, spending, wind energy, ethanol and other important issues.
"We will do it again and we hope that Senator Nygaard – regardless of his party affiliation – will support us. But we think he will find it more difficult in the majority caucus that is too often beholden to the bureaucracy and the status quo," he said Thursday.
Nygaard ran for the District 17 Senate seat vacated by Democrat Ben Nesselhuf of Vermillion, who chose to campaign for the office of secretary of state.
Two weeks ago, Nygaard successfully was elected to the state Senate, defeating Republican challenger Terri Jorgenson of Davis in the Nov. 2 general election by 500 votes.
Nygaard could not be reached for comment Thursday.