Mike Rounds on a historic path

Mike Rounds on the Trail of Governors in Pierre. The statue is on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion, just a few blocks from Rounds’ boyhood home.

Mike Rounds was reelected to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, handily winning a second term against Democratic challenger Dan Ahlers. Rounds won with 65.7%, enough to place him comfortably amidst the biggest U.S. Senate victors in South Dakota history.

Rounds will be the first South Dakotan to serve two four-year terms as Governor of South Dakota, followed by two terms in the U.S. Senate. Two others served two two-year terms as governor, and then at least two terms in the U.S. Senate: Peter Norbeck, a great South Dakotan and a hero of Rounds’, served two two-year terms as South Dakota governor 1917-21, followed by three terms in the U.S. Senate, 1921-36 (ending with Norbeck’s death). W. J. Bulow, the only Democrat to serve both as S.D. Governor and in the U.S. Senate, served two two-year terms as governor 1927-31 followed by two U.S. Senate terms, 1931-43.

Rounds, surrounded by family, celebrates his 2014 election to the U.S. Senate

Three other South Dakota governors, all Republicans, went on to serve in the U.S. Senate: Coe Crawford (Governor 1907-09, U.S. Senate 1909-15), William H. McMaster (Governor 1921-25, U.S. Senate 1925-31), and Harlan J. Bushfield (Governor 1939-43, U.S. Senate 1943-48). Until Rounds’ election in 2014, Bushfield was the most recent South Dakota governor to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Rounds’ reelection victory sets him on the path to another significant milestone. Rounds is one thirty-two people who have served as Governor of South Dakota. Among them, the longest careers in state and federal elected office can be claimed by Peter Norbeck and Walter Dale Miller.

Peter Norbeck, who many consider South Dakota’s greatest governor, served twenty-eight years in state and federal elected office. The owner of a successful Redfield well-digging company, Norbeck served six years in the State Senate (1909-15), two years as lieutenant governor (1915-17), four years as governor (1917-21), and sixteen years in the U.S. Senate (1921-36). His service ended with his death in December 1936. During his long career, Norbeck founded Custer State Park, advocated for the creation of Mount Rushmore, held the state’s first pheasant hunting season, and pushed for the establishment of Badlands National Monument and Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. He wrote the Migratory Bird Conservation Act and led the hearings that led to the Securities Exchange Act.

Walter Dale Miller’s twenty-eight-year career was entirely at the State Capitol. Miller, a Meade County rancher, served twenty years in the State House (1967-1987). As a longtime legislative leader, he is the only person to serve in the State Legislature as majority leader, assistant majority leader, speaker of the house, and speaker pro tempore. In 1986, Miller joined the Republican ticket as George S. Mickelson’s running mate, and after the Mickelson/Miller ticket’s victory, Miller became the state’s first full-time lieutenant governor. The timing was opportune, because Miller was ready to step up on April 19, 1993, when Governor Mickelson died in a plane crash. In his nearly two years as governor, Miller faced a riot at the state penitentiary, record flooding in the James River valley, and the court-ordered shutdown of video lottery.

State Capitol portrait of Governor Rounds

Mike Rounds, if he completes the six-year term to which he was just elected, will surpass Norbeck and Miller, serving thirty years in state and federal elected office. His will be the longest political career of any South Dakota governor. Rounds served ten years in the State Senate (1991-2001). Rounds won his first term in the State Senate by defeating a Democratic opponent, and then was reelected four times. He served six years, from 1995-2000, as Senate Majority Leader. Serving with term limits looming in 2000, Rounds was selected to serve as majority leader with the support of veterans such as Harold Halverson and Jim Dunn, who saw that term limits required a transition of leadership to a new generation. Rounds was a close ally of Governor Bill Janklow and helped Janklow enact much of his agenda.

In late 2001, Rounds launched an improbable underdog candidacy for Governor. The Republican field already included two heavyweights: Attorney General Mark Barnett, who had been preparing for years to run and had built a massive war-chest; and former Lt. Governor Steve Kirby, a Sioux Falls businessman who was also well-funded. Rounds entered the primary very late, and with no funding, but with the behind-the-scenes support of Governor Janklow. The 2002 Republican primary devolved into a brutal punching match between Barnett and Kirby. Meanwhile Rounds, who had no paid staff and relied largely on family and volunteers (including me), refused to run a negative ad and remained above the fray. A lifelong Pierre native and legislative veteran, Rounds relied on his depth of state government knowledge and told voters that “Working together, we’ll make South Dakota even better.”

Rounds’ 2002 primary victory is one of the great upsets in South Dakota political history, as he won 44% to 30% for Barnett and 26% for Kirby. He selected State Senator Dennis Daugaard as his running mate, and easily defeated the Democratic nominee, USD President Jim Abbott, a credible candidate who had no answer for Rounds’ nice-guy image and inherent Republican advantage.

Governor Rounds in 2006

Rounds became South Dakota’s thirty-first governor in early 2003. He was the first native of Pierre and the first graduate of South Dakota State University to serve as governor. His election also represented a generational shift, and he was the first “baby boomer” to hold the office. Rounds’ eight years as governor focused on economic development, with a set of policies and proposals he packaged as the “2010 Initiative.” Rounds’ signature achievement was the development of the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead as an underground physics laboratory. That considerable achievement was a part of a wider effort to expand research at the state universities; he also supported several state-sponsored scholarship plans. Rounds’ was also a war-time governor. He supported South Dakota National Guard deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East throughout his time in office. Rounds worked with the state’s congressional delegation to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from closure. He also dedicated new memorials in Pierre to the state’s Korean and Vietnam war veterans.

Rounds left office in 2011, turning over the Governor’s Office to his lieutenant governor, Dennis Daugaard, whom he had endorsed and supported in the 2010 campaign. He returned to his insurance business in Pierre, but soon turned his sights on the U.S. Senate. Rounds announced his 2014 candidacy for U.S. Senate just days after the 2012 election; incumbent Tim Johnson later retired. Rounds’ 2014 campaign was eventful, as he faced a five-way Republican primary followed by a four-way general election, but he ultimately prevailed by comfortable margins in both. His election 2014 was a milestone, as it marked the first time since 1962 that Republicans controlled the entire South Dakota congressional delegation.

U.S. Senator Rounds with fellow Senator John Thune in 2015

In the Senate, Rounds has led efforts to reign in federal regulations, advocated for reform of the Indian Health Service and Veterans Health Administration, and supported trade policies and market reforms to benefit farmes and ranchers. He also advocated for the B-21 Bomber to be located at Ellsworth Air Force Base and has pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve management of the Missouri River system. Rounds has chaired the Senate subcommittee on cybersecurity and played a critical role in establishing the Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences at Dakota State University.

Mike Rounds’ political career isn’t over; his reelection means that he is set to serve at least another six years in public office. Going back to that 2002 primary victory, his low-key personality and sensible approach mean that he tends to stay a little below-the-radar, even as he notches election wins (he is now 12-0 in contested elections). With his latest reelection, however, Rounds has reached an important milestone in a long political career, and it’s time to consider him as a significant figure in South Dakota history.

Senator Rounds on August 20, 2021 at the dedication of the “M. Michael Rounds Operations Center” on the campus of the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead. The underground physics lab within the former Homestake Gold Mine is perhaps Rounds’ signature achievement from his time in the Governor’s Office.