Bob Dole, “South Dakota’s third senator,” dies

U.S. Senator Bob Dole (right) with South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson (left), celebrating Dole’s victory in the South Dakota Republican Primary in 1988

The news breaks that Bob Dole died this morning. Dole, a World War II hero, was a major figure in late 20th Century American politics. He represented his native Kansas in the US House 1961-69 and US Senate 1969-96, and was Republican leader in the Senate 1985-96. Dole sought national office four times. He was President Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976, losing to the Democratic Carter/Mondale ticket. Dole sought the Republican nomination for President in 1980, one of a crowded field as the party ultimately nominated Ronald Reagan. He ran again in 1988, again in a crowded field, and was the principal opponent to George Bush, the eventual nominee. Both Reagan and Bush considered Dole as a running mate but neither selected him.

Dole finally won the nomination in 1996, running two years after the Gingrich revolution in which Republicans retook control of Congress. Dole was the party’s senior figure and won the nomination during an era when Republicans deferred to such things, but he was 73 years old, which would have made him the oldest president ever at the time, and in some ways the party had already passed him by. He was a respectable nominee but President Bill Clinton was reelected easily.

Although Dole was from Kansas, his ties to South Dakota were extensive; in fact, he was known at times as “South Dakota’s third senator.” The Ford/Dole ticket carried South Dakota in 1976. In 1980, Dole’s candidacy ended in March, prior to South Dakota’s last-in-the-nation primary in June, which supported presumptive nominee Ronald Reagan.

The highlight of Dole’s political involvement in South Dakota came in 1988. South Dakota had moved up its presidential primary to February, leading to significant national attention. Dole and Vice President George Bush were the leading candidates for the Republican nomination, and both visited the state. Dole held most of the significant endorsements, including those of Governor George S. Mickelson, U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, former Governor Bill Janklow, and former U.S. Senator Jim Abdnor. Bush’s campaign in the state was chaired by Lt. Governor Walter Dale Miller. Coming from Kansas, Dole could argue that he would be best attuned to the need of South Dakota, a similar state.

Dole won the 1988 primary handily with 55% of the South Dakota vote. Bush finished an embarrassing third place, winning 19% to 20% to televangelist Pat Robertson. The result mirrored the early Iowa Caucuses, which had also voted Dole-Robertson-Bush. Bush had followed Iowa though with wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, so the Dole victory in South Dakota (and in Minnesota on the same day) were important to Dole as they slowed the Bush momentum.

The South Dakota primary, though, turned out to be a “last hurrah” for Dole’s candidacy. He won the Wyoming caucus the following day, but was soon overwhelmed by Bush’s organizational strength and did not win another primary or caucus. Bush, of course, won the nomination and the presidency.

Dole didn’t forget South Dakota’s support, though. When Governor George S. Mickelson died in the state plane crash in 1993, Dole was among the mourners at the South Dakota State Capitol memorial service for Mickelson.

Dole once again won South Dakota’s strong support in the 1996 Republican Primary, the last which South Dakota held in February. He won 45% to 29% for television commentator Pat Buchanan and 13% for publisher Steve Forbes. Dole won the North Dakota primary the same day, and ultimately won the Republican nomination. During the fall campaign, Dole’s running mate, Jack Kemp of New York, visited Watertown, where the city’s Kemp Avenue is named for relatives of Kemp. President Bill Clinton also visited the state in a late play for South Dakota’s three electoral votes; his last event as a candidate for office was in South Dakota. In the end, South Dakota stuck with our “third senator,” casting our three electoral votes for Dole.

Dole had resigned from the U.S. Senate in 1996 to focus on his campaign, so his loss also ended his years in public office. There was one more important tie to South Dakota, though. Dole and his old friend and fellow WWII veteran, former U.S. Senator George McGovern, joined together to fight hunger, in the United States and around the world. Their bipartisan efforts began when they served together in the Senate, where they expanded the food stamp program, and continued after both had left elected office, and the two were jointly aware the World Food Prize in 1988.

Bob Dole was a war hero, a titan of the U.S. Senate, a true American patriot, and a friend to South Dakota. When Governor Mickelson died in 1993, Dole said of him: “He was pleased to be called a politician. Politics to George Mickelson meant making a difference in people’s lives.”

Those words are an equally fitting tribute to Dole himself.