The Dem Dozen

This week, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith launched his 2022 candidacy for governor. Smith joins a Democratic Party field that also includes Barry Hulse, a political unknown who filed his organizational paperwork last week. Smith is the clear choice of the South Dakota Democratic Party leadership and, even if Hulse goes forward with his candidacy, Smith is a clear front-runner to be the Democratic nominee.

Smith will be the 12th Democratic nominee for governor since Democrats last held the Governor’s Office from 1971-79. Richard F. Kneip is the most recent Democrat to be elected governor, winning elections in 1970, 1972, and 1974. He resigned in 1978 to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and Lt. Governor Harvey Wollman completed Kneip’s term; Wollman remains today the most recent Democratic governor.

What follows is a look at those 11 Democratic gubernatorial nominees from 1978-2018, each of whom fell short, and Smith, who completes the “Dem Dozen” and, as he undertakes an uphill challenge of incumbent Gov. Kristi Noem, seeks to succeed where the others have failed.

1978: Roger McKellips

McKellips was a state senator and banker from Alcester. His father, Ernest F. McKellips, had sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1954. The younger McKellips narrowly prevailed in the Democratic primary against Lt. Governor Harvey Wollman, who at the time was “governor in waiting” as Governor Kneip had announced his intention to resign but had not yet done so. The Associated Press initially declared Wollman the winner, only to reverse its call after discovering a tabulation error. McKellips selected Billie H. Sutton, a state senator and rancher from Bonesteel as his running mate; Sutton was the grandfather of the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. The McKellips/Sutton ticket fell short, winning 43.4% of the vote against Republican Attorney General Bill Janklow of Flandreau and his running mate Lowell C. Hansen II, the house speaker and a Sioux Falls businessman.

1982: Mike O’Connor

O’Connor was a former president pro tempore of the State Senate and the owner of a printing business in Sioux Falls. O’Connor entered the race after former Governor Kneip declined to run, and he prevailed in the primary against Elvern Varilek, a former house minority leader from Geddes. O’Connor’s running mate was Representative Willis Danekas, a farmer from Clark County. The O’Connor/Danekas ticket lost to the incumbents, Janklow and Hansen, in what was at that time the biggest loss in state history: 70.9% for Janklow/Hansen to 29.1% for O’Connor/Danekas.

1986: R. Lars Herseth

The 1986 election was an important year in South Dakota political history, with competitive races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and Governor. Lars Herseth was the son of Governor Ralph Herseth; he was a Houghton farmer and house minority leader. Herseth won a competitive Democratic primary against former Governor Richard F. Kneip and Public Utilities Commissioner Kenneth Stofferhan. Kneip was the early favorite, but Herseth prevailed with 42.8% to 38.7% for Kneip. He selected Ted Thoms, a Sioux Falls developer and Minnehaha County commissioner, as his running mate. The general election was the most competitive since the 1960s, as the Herseth/Thoms ticket lost by only 3.6%, winning 48.2% to 51.8% for Republican George S. Mickelson, a former house speaker and son of Governor George T. Mickelson, and his running mate, longtime legislator Walter Dale Miller, a Meade County rancher.

1990: Bob Samuelson

Samuelson was a former assistant senate minority leader, and had been the Democratic nominee for U.S. House from the state’s second district in 1978, losing to Jim Abdnor. He won the nomination without opposition after more high profile candidates, including 1986 nominee Herseth and former Governor Harvey Wollman, declined to run. Samuelson selected the first female running mate in state history, former State Representative Shirley Halleen of Sioux Falls. The Samuelson/Halleen ticket fell short, winning 41.1% against the incumbent Mickelson/Miller ticket.

1994: Jim Beddow

Beddow was the president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell; his wife, Jean, had been a state representative. Beddow won the Democratic nomination against State Senator Carrol “Red” Allen of Yankton and Public Utilities Commissioner Jim Burg of Wessington Springs. He selected as his running mate Jim Abbott, a Yankton businessman and former legislator. The Beddow/Abbott ticket went up against former Governor Bill Janklow, who had defeated incumbent Governor Walter Dale Miller in the Republican primary. Janklow’s running mate was State Representative Carole Hillard of Rapid City, the first woman to be on a Republican gubernatorial ticket. The campaign centered on property taxes, with both candidates pledging to cut taxes, and Beddow also emphasized new approaches to economic development and education. The Janklow/Hillard ticket prevailed with 55.4% to 40.5% for Beddow and Abbott.

1998: Bernie Hunhoff

Hunhoff was the senate minority leader and the owner and publisher of South Dakota Magazine, based in his hometown of Yankton. He won the Democratic nomination without opposition and selected as his running mate Elsie Meeks of Interior, a businesswoman and economic development official, making Meeks the first Native American to appear on a gubernatorial ticket. Hunhoff emphasized economic development and questioned Governor Janklow’s personal finances and use of state resources. The incumbent Janklow/Hillard ticket prevailed handily, winning 64.0% to 32.9% for Hunhoff/Meeks.

2002: Jim Abbott

Abbott was the president of the University of South Dakota, having earlier served in the State House, run for lieutenant governor in 1994, and run for U.S. House in 1996. He won the nomination against State Senator Ron Volesky of Huron, Senate Minority Leader Jim Hutmacher of Chamberlain, and Robert Hockett of Pierre, and selected as his running mate Mike Wilson, a Rapid City attorney and former legislator. Abbott’s campaign focused on the need for university research activity in the state, and for his support for ethanol. The Abbott/Wilson ticket faced Republican Mike Rounds, who had won the Republican nomination in a major upset, and his running mate, State Senator Dennis Daugaard of Dell Rapids. The Rounds/Daugaard ticket prevailed, 56.8% to 41.9% for Abbott/Wilson. Abbott returned to the presidency of USD, where he served until his retirement in 2018.

2006: Jack Billion

Billion was an orthopedic surgeon and former state representative from Sioux Falls. He won the Democratic primary against Dennis Wiese, a Flandreau farmer and former president of the South Dakota Farmers Union. Billion’s running mate was Eric Abrahamson, a Rapid City historian and school board member. His campaign centered on criticism of the state legislature’s focus on social issues, in particular the state abortion ban, which had been referred to the 2006 general election ballot. Billion/Abrahamson lost to the incumbent Rounds/Daugaard ticket, 61.7% to 36.1%.

2010: Scott Heidepriem

Heidepriem was the senate minority leader and a Sioux Falls attorney. He was a former Republican who had represented his hometown of Miller in the state legislature in the 1980s. Heidepriem launched his candidacy after Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin declined to run, and he won the nomination without opposition. His running mate was Ben Arndt, a Sioux Falls businessman and also a former Republican. Heidepriem’s campaign focused on criticisms of the outgoing Rounds administration, especially the effect of the Great Recession on the state budget and the economy. The Heidepriem/Arndt ticket lost to Republican Dennis Daugaard, the lieutenant governor, and his running mate, Matt Michels, a former house speaker and attorney from Yankton. Daugaard/Michels won 61.5% to 38.5% for Heidepriem/Arndt.

2014: Susan Wismer

Wismer was a state representative and accountant from Britton. Her grandfather, Arthur W. Jones, had been Democratic leader in the State Senate. Wismer won the primary against Joe Lowe, the former director of the state Division of Wildland Fire. Wismer was the first woman nominated by a major party for Governor of South Dakota. She selected Susy Blake, a former state representative and nurse from Sioux Falls, as her running mate, making them the first all-female ticket in state history. Wismer focused on teacher pay, support for expansion of Medicaid eligibility, and a minimum wage increase, as well as for the need for transparency and partisan balance in state government. The Wismer/Blake ticket lost to incumbents Daugaard/Michels by the largest margin in state history, 70.5% to 25.4%.

2018: Billie Sutton

Sutton was the senate minority leader and a financial advisor and rancher from Burke. He had been paralyzed below the waist after a 2007 rodeo accident. Sutton won the nomination without opposition after Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether declined to run against him. He selected as his running mate Michelle Lavallee, a Sioux Falls marketing consultant and former Republican. Sutton’s campaign focus on the need for accountability and bipartisanship in state government, but the ticket fell short in the closest gubernatorial election since the 1960s, losing to Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem and her running mate, longtime legislator and Meade County rancher Larry Rhoden, by a vote of 51.0% to 47.6%.

2022: Jamie Smith

Smith is the house minority leader and a real estate agent from Sioux Falls. He is the overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic nominee in 2022, as the party leadership has lined up behind him and the only other declared candidate, Barry Hulse, is a political unknown. Smith will likely face a general election matchup against Governor Kristi Noem, who is an overwhelming frontrunner in the Republican primary and will likewise be a strong favorite in November. Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial election since 1978, and Smith will have his work cut out for him as he joins the “Dem Dozen.”