PIERRE, S.D. – The conversation between a state senator and a legislative aide started with a seemingly routine discussion about a bill. It suddenly spiraled as the senator allegedly harassed the aide because she had vaccinated her young child, plunging the Senate into a political drama that has divided South Dakota's Republican Party.
The Senate, where lawmakers pride themselves on a genteel code of conduct as they work from wooden desks that have been there for generations, has seemed largely insulated from the forces roiling the wider GOP.
But even here, controversy was inevitable as an insurgent brand of Republicans look to challenge the establishment by pushing for hardline stands on social issues and passionately staking out positions that defy evidence, whether it is from medical authorities or election officials.
South Dakota is dominated by Republicans, and Gov. Kristi Noem, who is widely seen as mulling a 2024 White House bid, has branded it as the country's most conservative state. But party tensions have grown in recent years.
A contrarian group has gained traction in the House with support from activists. The State Freedom Caucus Network, which is looking to push politics rightward and disrupt business-as-usual in state Legislatures, including Montana, Wyoming, Illinois, Arizona and Mississippi, has organized in Pierre.
“It’s just sound and fury, it’s blaming each other, talking smack about each other — and yet on most of the issues the principles are the same,” said Michael Card, a former Republican official and political scientist at the University of South Dakota.
Nationally, the GOP has been plagued with similar strains of controversy. A politician like Rep. George Santos of New York is able to hold office despite lying about his background and facing multiple investigations into his personal and campaign finances. Former President Donald Trump remains an active and powerful force. And a handful of U.S. House holdouts were emboldened to hold up the selection of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Statehouses have become fertile ground for nationalized politics, said Gerald Gamm, a professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester who has researched state-level politics.
“Polarization at the state level is probably as high today as it’s ever been,” he said.
Julie Frye-Mueller, the Republican senator involved in the incident with the aide, is among a group of hardline right-wing lawmakers who have clashed with top Republicans.
The encounter took place as the aide, who has not been publicly named, was discussing a draft bill in her office last week with Frye-Mueller and the senator's husband, Mike Mueller, who was at the Capitol assisting his wife and later in the week testified in support of a resolution expressing sympathy for those facing charges for the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.
Both the aide and Frye-Mueller have said their discussion turned to childhood vaccinations and breastfeeding, but their accounts differ.
According to the aide's complaint, Frye-Mueller asked if she had vaccinated her child. When the aide said yes, the senator pointed her finger and aggressively told her the child could have health issues or die, according to the complaint.
She also alleged that Frye-Mueller asked her about breastfeeding. When the aide said she wished she could breastfeed, Frye-Mueller allegedly suggested that the aide’s husband could “suck on my breasts” to get milk to come in, the complaint said. Frye-Mueller’s husband was in the room at the time and “smiled and nodded,” it added.
Frye-Mueller disputed that account in testimony to a Senate committee investigating the complaint. She said it was the staffer who brought up breastfeeding. Frye-Mueller said she asked the aide whether she wanted advice she had received as a young mother, and when the aide said yes, she said, “Have your husband help.”
Frye-Mueller said she was “falsely accused” and called the aide’s complaint “shocking and filthy.” She also framed her comments as an issue of freedom of speech.
The senator also testified that she questioned whether newborn babies in Pierre were receiving vaccinations and informed the aide about legislation that would have eliminated school requirements for childhood vaccinations.
Republicans, who hold 31 out of 35 seats in the Senate, moved decisively and treated the incident as a personnel issue and a serious harassment allegation. The body suspended her last week, launched an investigation and on Wednesday overwhelmingly voted to censure her. The Senate also ended her suspension and adopted a report that concluded she harassed the aide.
Senate Republican leaders, who initially kept the allegations a secret, faced backlash from local party activists, a lawsuit from Frye-Mueller and accusations of political retribution.
During her Senate testimony, Frye-Mueller even pointed to a Facebook post from the Republican Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck about the death of a family cat. She alleged it was somehow proof of a conspiracy that he was employing a “dead cat strategy” of drawing attention to something shocking to distract media attention from another story.
Schoenbeck said he was, in fact, referring to the death of a beloved family pet.
The longtime lawmaker, known for wearing Mister Rogers-style sweaters and firing colorful insults at right-wing legislators, has limited his comments on Frye-Mueller's discipline and framed it as a personnel issue. Other Republican and Democratic leaders have sought to tone down the political context around her suspension and pointed out that all but one Senator voted for her censure.
In the past, however, Schoenbeck has called Frye-Mueller and others “wackadoodles” and funded campaigns to unseat them in primaries, with limited success.
Noem has also clashed with the right-wing lawmakers and last year supported a number of campaigns to defeat them — again, with limited success.
As her political ambitions stretch beyond South Dakota, she has shown a willingness to concede to hardline conservatives, however. When House lawmakers advanced a bill in 2020 to ban gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender minors, she criticized the legislation as trying “to fill parenting gaps with more government.” This year, her spokesman has voiced support for a similar proposal.
“When you have a supermajority, you will always tear yourself apart,” said Tom Dempster, a former Republican state senator who remains a close political watcher. “The primary system incentivizes extreme candidates.”
Back in Frye-Mueller's home district, support for her remains strong. Activists in the Fall River County Republican Party drafted a resolution backing the senator.
“I’m conservative like she is — she votes the way I would,” said Ken Updike, a local party leader who pushed the resolution. Senate leaders, he said, “are more aligned with Democrats than they are Republicans.”