Kristi Noem: Six women who blazed the trail

kristi_noem_portraitCongresswoman Kristi Noem is in the midst of her campaign for the 2018 Republican nomination for Governor of South Dakota. She faces a primary against Attorney General Marty Jackley, and if successful she will run in November against Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton.

Noem’s candidacy could set a number of milestones – most notably, she would be the first woman to serve as Governor of South Dakota. Six other women, however, have blazed the trail by running, albeit unsuccessfully, for Governor of South Dakota:

1922:  Alice Lorraine Daly, Nonpartisan League

107912106_1494439588The Nonpartisan League was a short-lived socialist-leaning party that was influential in South Dakota in the late 1910s and early 1920s.  The League came into the state from North Dakota, where it met with such success that it ultimately merged with the state’s Democratic Party, which to this day is still officially the “North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party.”  The League met only limited success in South Dakota, however, due to Peter Norbeck’s efforts to co-opt the most popular aspects of its agenda.

During this time, the Democrats and the NPL were near parity, with both well behind the Republicans.  In 1918, NPL-backed candidate Mark P. Bates ran for governor and finished in second place, with 26% of the vote, losing to Peter Norbeck but finishing ahead of Democrat James E. Bird.  Two years later, Bates again finished in second place, behind William McMaster but ahead of Democrat W. W. Howes.

Alice Lorraine Daly was the NPL candidate for governor in 1922, and although she was not nominated by one of the two major parties, hers was a serious candidacy.  That year, Governor McMaster was easily reelected with 45% of the vote, with the Democrats and NPL splitting the remaining vote almost evenly.  Democrat Louis Napoleon Crill won 28.7% and Daly won 26.2%.

(You can learn more about the NPL in Insurgent Democracy:  The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics by Michael J. Lansing.)

1930:  Gladys Pyle, Republican

gladys-pyleGladys Pyle is a significant figure in South Dakota history.  Her father John served as attorney general from 1899 until his death in 1902, and her mother, Mamie was a leader of women’s suffrage in the state.

Gladys Pyle set several important milestones for women in South Dakota politics.  In 1922, she became the first woman to serve in the South Dakota State Legislature, winning her first of two terms representing her hometown of Huron in the State House.  In 1926, she was elected secretary of state, the first woman to hold statewide office in South Dakota.

In 1930, following two terms as secretary of state, Pyle announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor.  Incredibly for the era, Pyle finished in first place in a field of five candidates, winning 28.3% of the vote.  Unfortunately, state law at that time stated that, if no candidate won 35% of the vote, the Republican State Convention could choose a nominee from among the candidates.  At the state convention, Pyle could not achieve a majority, as the other candidates refused to withdraw in her favor.  After eleven deadlocked ballots, other candidates withdrew in favor of little-known Warren E. Green, who had finished dead-last in the primary with only 7.4% and had never led in the convention balloting.  Green went on to be elected in the general election.  (Like Kristi Noem, Green was a Hamlin County farmer and former state legislator.)

Had Pyle been elected, she would have been the first woman in the United States to be elected governor without being the wife or widow of a previous governor. That milestone was not achieved for another 44 years, when Ella Grasso was elected Governor of Connecticut in 1974.

Following her defeat, Pyle returned to her insurance business in Huron.  In 1938, she was elected to serve the final months of U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck’s term; he had died in late 1936.  Due to a flaw in South Dakota election laws, the parties were each required to nominate two different candidates – one to hold the new six-year term beginning in 1939, and the other to serve the two months between the 1938 general election and the seating of the new Congress.  Pyle was the Republican nominee for the interim seat, and her election made her the first woman to represent South Dakota in Congress.  The Senate did not meet during her brief tenure.

Pyle returned to Huron after her brief service in the U.S. Senate, dying in 1989 at the age of 99.  Her Huron home, in which she lived for her entire life, is open for tours.  A book also recounts her life:  The Incredible Gladys Pyle by Jeannette Kinyon and Jean Walz.

1946:  Jennie M. O’Hern, Democratic

Jennie M. O’Hern was the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for Governor of South Dakota.  She was an active Democrat, with stints on the Democratic National Committee and as a Democratic presidential elector, and worked as a railroad telegrapher in Wakpala.  In 1946, O’Hern sought the Democratic nomination, finishing in third with 25.6% in a primary that was won by Richard Haeder.  Haeder lost the general election by a two-to-one margin to Republican George T. Mickelson, the attorney general and a former speaker of the house.

1986:  Alice Kundert, Republican

alice-kundertIt was forty years until another woman ran for governor.  Alice Kundert was a native of Mound City who had served as state auditor from 1969 to 1979 and as secretary of state from 1979 to 1987.  In 1986, she entered a competitive field for the Republican nomination for governor that also included Lt. Governor Lowell Hansen, former Congressman Clint Roberts, and former House Speaker George S. Mickelson, who was the son of former Governor George T. Mickelson.

It was a competitive primary, but Kundert ultimately finished in fourth place with 13.8%.  Mickelson won the primary narrowly over Roberts, and exceeded the 35% required to avoid a runoff by only 0.3%.

Following her defeat, Kundert traveled the state to speak at schools about South Dakota history, in conjunction with the state’s centennial.  She also served two terms in the State House, from 1991-95.

2014:  Susan Wismer, Democratic

wismerSusan Wismer was the first woman to be nominated by a major party for Governor of South Dakota.  Her grandfather, Art Jones, and her uncle, Curtis Jones, both represented Marshall County in the state legislature, and Wismer followed in their footsteps when she was elected to her first of three State House terms in 2008.

In 2014, Wismer sought the Democratic nomination, winning with 56% and achieving the historical milestone as the first woman to win a gubernatorial primary.  Wismer made additional history later that month, when she named former legislator Susy Blake of Sioux Falls as her running mate.  The Wismer/Blake ticket was the first all-woman ticket in South Dakota history, and only the fourth time in U.S. history that two women ran on a single ticket for governor and lieutenant governor, following Dawn Clark Netsch and Penny Severns of Illinois in 1994, Peppy Martin and Wanda Cornelius of Kentucky in 1999, and Barbara Buono and Milly Silva of New Jersey in 2013.

Facing an uphill battle against popular incumbent Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Wismer won 25.4% in the general election.  She was returned to the State House in 2016 without opposition.

2014:  Lora Hubbel, Republican

A single-term state representative and frequent candidate, Hubbel ran against Gov. Dennis Daugaard in the 2014 Republican primary.  Hubbel objected to the state’s adoption of the Common Core education standards and opposed the state’s efforts to comply with requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare.”)  She lost the primary to Daugaard with 19.1% of the vote.  In a bizarre twist, after the primary, independent candidate for lieutenant governor Caitlyn Collier withdrew from her place on a ticket with former professor Michael Myers, and after a court ruled that Myers could name a new running mate, he selected Hubbel.  The Myers/Hubbel ticket won 4.1% as Daugaard was reelected with 70.5%.

Looking ahead to 2018

Congresswoman Noem will be the seventh woman to seek South Dakota’s governorship.  Although other candidates may enter and much remains to be seen, Noem’s financial advantage, her four successful statewide campaigns, and her high profile in South Dakota politics make her a formidable candidate.

Noem is not the first woman to run for Governor of South Dakota.  She is not the first Republican woman to run, nor would she be the first woman to appear on a general election ballot or to be nominated by a major party for governor.  If she wins the primary, she would be the first woman to be the Republican nominee for governor.  And, if elected, Noem will make history as the first woman to hold the state’s highest office.