This morning, Tom Lawrence has an excellent historical article, looking at U.S. Senator John Thune’s upcoming decision as to whether to seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
Lawrence opens his post:
More South Dakota senators have died in office than chosen to retire when they were still in good health.
Politics gets into their blood. It’s almost impossible to cure them of it, too. That’s why it takes a rejection from voters or the call from that great Senate Chamber in the sky to get them to depart.
Which makes Sen. John Thune’s possible retirement even more remarkable. It’s just not something we have witnessed in this state.
You can read the entire post here, and I would highly recommend it.
Lawrence is correct; whether Senator Thune seeks reelection or not, he will make history.
If Thune runs again, he will be a prohibitive favorite to win a fourth U.S. Senate term, making him only the second South Dakotan to do so. The first was Karl E. Mundt, who was elected in 1948 and reelected in 1954, 1960, and 1966. Three other U.S. Senators from South Dakota sought fourth terms and lost: George McGovern, who lost to Jim Abdnor in 1980; Larry Pressler, who lost to Tim Johnson in 1996; and Tom Daschle, whom Thune defeated in 2004.
If Thune retires, though, he would also make history, as arguably the first U.S. Senator in South Dakota history to retire entirely by choice.
Three times, a U.S. Senator from South Dakota has declined to seek reelection, citing health reasons. In 1948, Harlan J. Bushfield declined to seek a second term after suffering a stroke in 1947; he in fact died shortly before the election in September 1948. In 1972, Karl E. Mundt did not seek reelection; he had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 that made him incapable of running again. In 2014, Tim Johnson retired after three terms. He had suffered stroke-like symptoms as the result of a congenital brain defect in late 2006, which affected his speech and mobility. Despite that, Johnson was reelected in 2008, but he opted against a candidacy in 2014.
Johnson’s retirement announcement came in late March 2013, a couple months after former Governor Mike Rounds had launched his candidacy for the seat, and the prospect of a competitive reelection campaign perhaps affected Johnson’s decision. The other two U.S. Senators from South Dakota who retired voluntarily also would have faced political headwinds had they sought reelection. In 1920, Edwin S. Johnson, the first Democrat to serve South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, passed on a second term; he would have faced likely defeat against the popular progressive Republican Peter Norbeck, the outgoing governor. In 1978, Jim Abourezk passed on a second term; at the time he announced his retirement, the press cited a poll circulated by supporters of Congressman Larry Pressler that showed Pressler leading Abourezk, 75-25.
All of which is to reiterate Tom Lawrence’s point, that a Thune retirement, when he is physically able and politically strong, would be remarkable. As Lawrence said: “It’s just not something we have witnessed in this state.”
Below I have included a list of South Dakota’s U.S. Senators, along with a very brief description of how each departed office.
- Richard F. Pettigrew (Republican, 1889-1901): Defeated for reelection. Pettigrew had left the Republican Party in 1896, declaring himself a “Free Silver Republican.” This was during the era when the State Legislature selected U.S. Senators, and the Republican-controlled legislature did not reelect Pettigrew in 1900.
- Gideon C. Moody (Republican, 1889-91): Defeated for reelection. Moody served only a two-year term in the U.S. Senate; initial terms were staggered. He had the misfortune of facing reelection before the 1891 State Legislature, which was split three ways between Republicans, Democrats, and Populists. The issue dominated the session, as legislators considered 70 candidates over 40 ballots before electing Populist James H. Kyle, a Congregational minister and former Republican.
- James H. Kyle (Populist, 1891-1901): Died in office. Kyle had been reelected by a coalition of Republicans and Populists in the 1897 State Legislature. He died in office on July 1, 1901.
- Robert J. Gamble (Republican, 1901-13): Defeated for reelection. Gamble lost the 1912 Republican Primary to Thomas J. Sterling.
- Alfred B. Kittredge (Republican, 1901-09): Defeated for reelection. Kittredge, known as the “boss” of the conservative or “stalwart” Republican faction, had been appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Charles Herreid following Kyle’s death in 1901. He was reelected by legislators in 1903, but lost in the 1908 Republican primary to Governor Coe Crawford, a progressive Republican. At that time, the State Legislature still elected U.S. Senators, but the parties held primaries to nominate U.S. Senate candidates, with the understanding that their legislators would back the nominated candidate. This was a state-level intermediate step to popular election of U.S. Senators.
- Coe I. Crawford (Republican, 1909-15): Defeated for reelection. The 1914 election was the first in which U.S. Senators were elected by popular vote, rather than the state legislature. Crawford, a progressive, lost the Republican primary to conservative Charles H. Burke, who lost the general election to Democrat Edwin S. Johnson.
- Thomas J. Sterling (Republican, 1913-25): Defeated for reelection. Sterling lost the 1924 Republican primary to William H. McMaster, the outgoing governor and a progressive Republican. McMaster was elected in the fall.
- Edwin S. Johnson (Democrat, 1915-21): Didn’t seek reelection. Johnson, the Democratic U.S. Senator from South Dakota, and the first to be popularly elected in 1914, would have faced a difficult reelection against popular Governor Peter Norbeck, a progressive Republican.
- Peter Norbeck (Republican, 1921-36): Died in office. Norbeck was two years into his third term when he died on December 20, 1936.
- William H. McMaster (Republican, 1925-31): Defeated for reelection. McMaster lost a close reelection battle to Democrat William J. Bulow, the outgoing governor and a conservative Democrat.
- William J. Bulow (Democrat, 1931-43): Defeated for reelection. Bulow was a conservative Democrat who criticized FDR and the New Deal and opposed U.S. involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor. He lost the 1942 Democratic primary to former Governor Tom Berry, a FDR supporter who was more in line with the party’s views. Berry lost the general election to Republican Harlan Bushfield, the outgoing governor.
- Herbert E. Hitchcock (Democrat, 1936-38): Defeated for reelection. Hitchcock had been 69 years old when Governor Tom Berry appointed him to replace U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck following Norbeck’s death in late 1936. Berry wanted to run for U.S. Senate himself and likely viewed Hitchcock as merely a placeholder. Hitchcock, though decided to run for the full term, only to lose the Democratic primary to Berry, the Governor who had appointed him. Berry lost the general election to Republican Chan Gurney.
- Gladys Pyle (Republican, 1938-39): Special election only; didn’t seek full term. Due to a quirk in the election law, the 1938 general election included both a special election to fill the remaining two months of Peter Norbeck’s U.S. Senate term (which appointee Herbert Hitchcock had held since Norbeck’s death), AND a separate election to fill the new six-year term beginning in 1938. Gladys Pyle, the first woman in South Dakota history to serve in the state legislature or in statewide office, was the Republican nominee only in the special election. She won that seat but gave way to Chan Gurney, who was elected to the new term that began in 1939.
- Chan Gurney (Republican, 1939-51): Defeated for reelection. Gurney, a Sioux Falls businessman whose family owned Gurney’s Seed Company and WNAX radio in Yankton, lost the 1950 Republican primary to Francis Case, the congressman from the state’s Second District, which served West River. Case was elected in the fall.
- Harlan J. Bushfield (Republican, 1943-48): Died in office (having already decided not to seek reelection). As mentioned above, Bushfield had suffered a stroke in 1947 and decided not to run for reelection. He died September 27, 1948.
- Vera C. Bushfield (Republican, 1948): Gubernatorial appointee only; didn’t seek full term. Governor George T. Mickelson appointed Mrs. Bushfield to hold her husband’s seat until a new senator was elected. She was not a candidate for the new six-year term in 1948.
- Karl E. Mundt (Republican, 1948-73): Didn’t seek reelection. Mundt had been elected in 1948 to succeed Bushfield. The special election law had been fixed after 1936, so that rather than a second special election to fill a brief vacancy, Mundt, who had been elected to the new term, was allowed to take office a few days early. He suffered a massive stroke in 1969 and, incapable of discharging his duties as a senator, didn’t seek reelection in 1972.
- Francis H. Case (Republican, 1951-62): Died in office. Case was planning to seek a third term in 1962 but he died of a heart attack on June 22, 1962.
- Joseph H. Bottum (Republican, 1962-63): Defeated for reelection. Bottum, the lieutenant governor, was appointed to Case’s U.S. Senate seat by Governor Archie Gubbrud. As Case had been a candidate for reelection, the State Republican Convention had to select a replacement nominee, and Governor Gubbrud deferred to the convention, pledging to appoint whomever the convention nominated. Bottum prevailed over a field that also featured former Governors Sigurd Anderson and Joe Foss, House Speaker (and future Governor) Nils Boe; Congressman Ben Reifel; and Attorney General A.C. Miller (who had unsuccessfully challenged Case in the primary that year). Bottum won the nomination and received the appointment, but lost narrowly in the general election to former Congressman George McGovern.
- George S. McGovern (Democrat, 1963-81): Defeated for reelection. McGovern served three terms as U.S. Senator from South Dakota, becoming a nationally prominent figure who was the 1972 Democratic nominee for President. In part because of his national profile, he lost reelection in 1980 to Congressman Jim Abdnor.
- Jim Abourezk (Democrat, 1973-79): Didn’t seek reelection. As noted above, Abourezk was facing a difficult reelection against Congressman Larry Pressler, a popular Republican.
- Larry Pressler (Republican, 1979-97): Defeated for reelection. After three terms, Pressler lost a hard-fought reelection in 1996 to Congressman Tim Johnson.
- Jim Abdnor (Republican, 1981-87): Defeated for reelection. Abdnor survived a primary challenge in 1986 from outgoing Governor Bill Janklow, but lost the general election to Congressman Tom Daschle. The Janklow challenge may have weakened Abdnor, but 1986 was a difficult year for Republicans regardless as they lost control of the U.S. Senate.
- Tom Daschle (Democrat, 1987-2005): Defeated for reelection. Daschle, who was the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, was the Republican’s #1 target in 2004 and he lost a close reelection to former Congressman John Thune. Thune had also challenged U.S. Senator Tim Johnson two years before, in 2002, but had lost by an extremely narrow margin.
- Tim Johnson (Democrat, 1997-2015): Didn’t seek reelection. As discussed above, Johnson’s speech and mobility had been impaired in late 2006 and he announced his retirement in early 2013. He would have faced a competitive reelection contest against former Governor Mike Rounds, who had launched his candidacy in late 2012.
- The incumbents are John Thune, a Republican first elected in 2004 who is next up for reelection in 2022, and Mike Rounds, a Republican first elected in 2014 who is next up for reelection in 2026.