Closest elections for South Dakota governor

3 Andrew E. Lee
Andrew E. “Landslide” Lee

This post has been updated to include the results of the 2018 election.

The closest gubernatorial election in South Dakota history was won by Populist Andrew E. Lee in 1896. Lee was a prosperous merchant and the mayor of Vermillion. He ran on a “fusion ticket,” supported by the Democratic and Populist parties, and defeated Republican A. O. Ringsrud by 315 votes, or 0.4% – both the closest margins in South Dakota history. Ringsrud was the secretary of state and, like Lee, had been born in Norway. In 1898, Lee was reelected by the second-closest margins in state history: 370 votes, or 0.5%, over Republican challenger Kirk G. Phillips, the state treasurer.

South Dakota Republicans have won eleven straight gubernatorial elections from 1978 to 2018, controlling the governor’s office for forty-four years. During that time, the closest gubernatorial election by vote margin was in 1986, when George S. Mickelson defeated R. Lars Herseth by 10,645 votes (3.6%) and, by percentage margin, in 2018, when Kristi Noem defeated Billie Sutton by 3.4% (11,458 votes). This modern era also includes two of the three biggest wins in state history: Dennis Daugaard’s 45.0% win over Susan Wismer in 2014, and Bill Janklow’s 41.7% margin over Mike O’Connor in 1982.

The late 1950s and early 1960s also featured several competitive elections for governor. In 1958, Ralph Herseth ended twenty-two years of Republican control of the governor’s office, winning an open seat against Republican Phil Sanders by 2.8%. Two years later, Republican House Speaker Archie Gubbrud unseated Herseth by 1.5% in an upset that was the third-closest election in SD history, following only Governor Lee’s two victories. Gubbrud was comfortably reelected in 1962, but in 1964, Republican Nils Boe won the governor’s office by only 3.3% over Democrat John Lindley, who had been Herseth’s lieutenant governor.

Below is a list of winning candidates for Governor of South Dakota, ranked by the winner’s percentage margin over the runner-up. Listed “major opponents” are those who won at least 10% of the vote.

YearWinning candidateMarginMajor opponents
1896Andrew E. Lee (POP)0.4%Amund O. Ringsrud (REP)
1898Andrew E. Lee (POP)0.5%Kirk G. Phillips (REP)
1960Archie Gubbrud (REP)1.5%Ralph Herseth (DEM)
1912Frank M. Byrne (REP)2.8%Edwin S. Johnson (DEM)
1958Ralph Herseth (DEM)2.8%Phil Saunders (REP)
1936Leslie Jensen (REP)3.2%Tom Berry (DEM)
1964Nils Boe (REP)3.3%John Lindley (DEM)
2018Kristi Noem (REP)3.4%Billie Sutton (DEM)
1986George S. Mickelson (REP)3.6%R. Lars Herseth (DEM)
1928W. J. Bulow (DEM)5.5%Buell F. Jones (REP)
1930Warren E. Green (REP)6.7%David A. McCullough (DEM)
1926W. J. Bulow (DEM)7.1%Carl Gunderson (REP)
1974Richard F. Kneip (DEM)7.2%John E. Olson (REP)
1938Harlan J. Bushfield (REP)7.9%Oscar Fosheim (DEM)
1956Joe Foss (REP)8.8%Ralph Herseth (DEM)
1970Richard F. Kneip (DEM)9.7%Frank Farrar (REP)
1940Harlan J. Bushfield (REP)10.3%Lewis W. Bicknell (DEM)
1962Archie Gubbrud (REP)12.2%Ralph Herseth (DEM)
1890Arthur C. Mellette (REP)12.8%H. L. Loucks (IND), Maris Taylor (DEM)
1932Tom Berry (DEM)13.2%Warren E. Green (REP)
1954Joe Foss (REP)13.3%Ed C. Martin (DEM)
1978William J. Janklow (REP)13.3%Roger McKellips (DEM)
1900Charles N. Herreid (REP)14.4%Burre H. Lien (POP)
1994William J. Janklow (REP)14.8%James Beddow (DEM)
2002M. Michael Rounds (REP)14.8%James W. Abbott (DEM)
1914Frank M. Byrne (REP)14.9%James W. McCarter (DEM)
1968Frank Farrar (REP)15.3%Robert Chamberlin (DEM)
1966Nils Boe (REP)15.4%Robert Chamberlin (DEM)
1892Charles H. Sheldon (REP)15.5%Abraham L. Van Osdel (IND), Peter Couchman (DEM)
1908Robert S. Vessey (REP)15.9%Andrew E. Lee (DEM)
1922William H. McMaster (REP)16.3%Louis Napoleon Crill (DEM), Alice Lorraine Daly (NPL)
1916Peter Norbeck (REP)17.3%Orville V. Rinehart (DEM)
1990George S. Mickelson (REP)17.8%Robert L. Samuelson (DEM)
1934Tom Berry (DEM)17.9%William C. Allen (REP)
1894Charles H. Sheldon (REP)18.0%Isaac Howe (IND), James A. Ward (DEM)
1972Richard F. Kneip (DEM)20.1%Carv Thompson (REP)
1950Sigurd Anderson (REP)21.8%Joe Robbie (DEM)
1948George T. Mickelson (REP)22.2%Harold J. Volz (DEM)
1910Robert S. Vessey (REP)22.5%Chauncey L. Wood (DEM)
1942M. Q. Sharpe (REP)23.0%Lewis W. Bicknell (DEM)
2010Dennis Daugaard (REP)23.0%Scott Heidepriem (REP)
2006M. Michael Rounds (REP)25.6%Jack Billion (DEM)
1918Peter Norbeck (REP)27.1%Mark P. Bates (IND), James E. Bird (DEM)
1920William H. McMaster (REP)30.0%Mark P. Bates (NPL), William W. Howes (DEM)
1924Carl Gunderson (REP)31.0%W. J. Bulow (DEM)
1944M. Q. Sharpe (REP)31.0%Lynn Fellows (DEM)
1998William J. Janklow (REP)31.2%Bernie Hunhoff (DEM)
1946George T. Mickelson (REP)34.3%Richard Haeder (DEM)
1902Charles N. Herreid (REP)36.0%John W. Martin (DEM)
1906Coe I. Crawford (REP)38.6%John A. Stransky (DEM)
1889Arthur C. Mellette (REP)38.7%P. F. McClure (DEM)
1952Sigurd Anderson (REP)40.3%Sherman Iverson (DEM)
1982William J. Janklow (REP)41.7%Michael O’Connor (DEM)
1904Samuel H. Elrod (REP)43.6%Louis Napoleon Crill (DEM)
2014Dennis Daugaard (REP)45.0%Susan Wismer (REP)

Abbreviations for parties are REPublican, DEMocratic, INDependent, POPulist (these candidates ran on a Democratic/Populist fusion ticket), and NPL for Nonpartisan League.

In 1890, 1892, and 1894, IND refers to the “Independent Party” which was a precursor to the Populists. In 1918, IND refers to the independent candidate was associated with the Nonpartisan League, which gained ballot status as a political party in 1920 and 1922.