With the current focus on the Jackley–Noem primary in a few weeks, it is easy to forget that a third candidate, Democrat Billie Sutton, is waiting in the wings to face the winner. The reason that Sutton’s candidacy has been relatively quiet is that, unlike Noem and Jackley, he is unopposed for his party’s nomination. Sutton is the only Democrat running for governor this year; therefore, his name will not appear on the primary ballot, and he is automatically considered the Democratic nominee.
Since South Dakota began using primary elections in 1908, there have been 17 “open-seat” gubernatorial elections – that is, an election in which no incumbent governor was running. That count includes 2018.
There have been 34 major party nominees in those 17 open-seat election. Billie Sutton is the 10th of those 34 to be nominated without opposition. Of the other nine, 3 were elected and 6 were defeated. Democrats have nominated a candidate without opposition 8 times out of these 10, including Sutton. Republicans have only done so twice. (Because the Republicans are usually favored to win statewide elections in South Dakota, it probably makes sense that the Republican nomination battles tend to be more competitive.)
Here are the 10 gubernatorial candidates who, in open-seat elections, won their party’s nomination without opposition:
Andrew E. Lee, Democrat, 1908 – Lee, a former Vermillion mayor and merchant, had served two terms as governor from 1897-1901. He was a Populist and was elected by a “fusion” ticket of Populists and Democrats. By 1908, the Populist Party in South Dakota had collapsed, and Lee was a Democrat. That year, Lee became the first former governor seek a return to the office and was nominated without opposition by the Democrats. He lost the general election to Republican Robert S. Vessey, the State Senate’s president pro tempore and a Wessington Springs merchant. Vessey won 55.3% to 39.4% for Lee.
William W. Howes, Democrat, 1920 – Howes was a former state senator and attorney from Wolsey. The Democratic Party was weakened by the emergence of the Nonpartisan League in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Despite its name, the Nonpartisan League was functionally a third political party that competed with the Democrats in opposition to the dominant progressive Republican Party. Howes won the Democratic nomination without opposition, but finished third in the general election. Lt. Governor William H. McMaster of Yankton was elected governor with 56.3%, to 26.3% for Sanborn County farmer Mark P. Bates of the Nonpartisan League, and only 17.3% for Howes. It was the second-worst showing for a Democratic nominee for governor in the history of the state.
Carl Gunderson, Republican, 1924 – Gunderson was a longtime state leader. The nephew of Gov. Andrew E. Lee, Gunderson grew up in Vermillion and represented the area in the State Senate. He had also been the federal allowing agent for the state, and oversaw the sale of “surplus” Indian lands for white settlement, including the town sites of Timber Lake, Eagle Butte and Dupree. Gunderson owned large wheat farms in Davison and Aurora counties, and he moved to Mitchell in 1918. He served as lieutenant governor from 1921-25.
Despite the fact that Gunderson was a conservative Republican, as opposed to “progressives” Peter Norbeck and William McMaster, he won the Republican nomination without opposition in 1924. He prevailed in the general election against Beresford attorney W. J. Bulow, who had been nominated at the last minute after the Democratic nominee, Andrew S. Anderson, was trampled to death by a bull. Gunderson won 53.9% to 22.9% for Bulow and 23.3% for two other candidates. Once in office, Gunderson’s attempts to dismantle various progressive programs, and in some cases to root out corruption within them, alienated progressive Republicans, and in 1926 Gunderson lost reelection in a rematch against Bulow.
Lewis W. Bicknell, Democrat, 1942 – Bicknell was a Webster attorney and the chairman of the state Democratic Party. After Gov. Tom Berry’s defeat in 1938, Bicknell had controlled federal patronage in the state’s New Deal-era programs. He had run for governor in 1940, losing to incumbent Gov. Harlan J. Bushfield 55.1% to 44.9%. Two years later, in 1942, Democrats nominated Bicknell again, without opposition. This time, he lost former Attorney General M. Q. Sharpe, a Kennebec Republican, by a vote of 61.5% to 38.5%.
Joe Robbie, Democrat, 1950 – Robbie, a native of Sisseton, was only 36 years old when he became the Democratic nominee for governor in 1950. A Mitchell attorney, he had served in the State Senate. Robbie lost the general election to Attorney General Sigurd Anderson of Webster, 60.9% to 39.1%. Anderson had coached debate in Webster against Robbie’s Sisseton team.
It was probably for the best for Joe Robbie. He moved to Minneapolis and, in 1966, American Football League commissioner Joe Foss, a former South Dakota governor, recruited Robbie to be the founding owner of the expansion Miami Dolphins. Under Robbie’s ownership, the Dolphins won two Super Bowls and achieved the only perfect season in National Football League history with a 17-0 record in 1972.
Ralph Herseth, Democrat, 1958 – Herseth, a Houghton farmer, was a Democratic state senator and the first person to be considered the “senate minority leader.” He ran for governor in four consecutive elections – 1956, 1958, 1960, and 1962 – and never faced a primary opponent. In 1956, Herseth ran against incumbent Gov. Joe Foss, losing a surprisingly close election 54.4% to 45.6%. In 1958, Herseth won a close open-seat election against Republican Attorney General Phil Saunders, 51.4% to 48.6%. Herseth was upset for reelection in 1960 by House Speaker Archie Gubbrud of Alcester, 50.7% to 49.3%. He ran one last time, unsuccessfully attempting a comeback bid and losing to Gov. Gubbrud in 1962, 56.1% to 43.9%.
Frank Farrar, Republican and Robert Chamberlin, Democrat, 1968 – Frank Farrar, a Britton attorney, had been the state’s youngest attorney general when he was elected at the age of 33 in 1962. Six years later, in 1968, he was nominated by the Republicans for governor without opposition.
Farrar’s Democratic opponent was Robert Chamberlin, a Hecla farmer and former house minority leader. Chamberlin had been the nominee for governor in 1964, losing to Gov. Nils Boe, and was again nominated without opposition in 1966.
Farrar defeated Chamberlin, 57.7% to 42.3%. Two years later, Farrar was defeated for reelection by Democratic Dick Kneip of Salem, the senate minority leader. Interestingly, all three successful candidates on this list – Gunderson, Herseth, and Farrar – lost reelection. (As with so much on this blog, “interestingly” is used loosely.)
Scott Heidepriem, Democrat, 2010 – Heidepriem began his political career in Miller as a Republican; he represented the area in both the State House and the State Senate, and ran for Congress in 1986. Heidepriem, a trial attorney, moved to Sioux Falls in the 1990s. He chaired the “Republicans for Jim Abbott” committee in 2002 and thereafter became a Democrat. Heidepriem returned to the State Senate in 2007, and served as the minority leader for four years. In 2010, Heidepriem deferred to Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, but when she forewent a gubernatorial candidacy to seek reelection, Heidepriem won the Democratic nomination without opposition. He lost the general election to Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard, 61.5% to 38.5%
Billie Sutton, Democrat, 2018 – Sutton, a Burke Democrat and the senate minority leader, is the only Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 and will win his party’s nomination without opposition. In the general election, he will face either Congresswoman Kristi Noem or Attorney General Marty Jackley.