Twenty years ago today – June 4, 2002 – Mike Rounds achieved one of the biggest upsets in South Dakota political history, when he won the Republican primary for governor.
As Terry Woster wrote in the Argus Leader the next morning: “Rounds stunned two better-known and financed Republicans to win his party’s nomination for governor on Tuesday . . . Rounds, 47, may have been the only person in South Dakota who seemed unsurprised by his victory. . .”
The Rounds victory would have seemed unlikely even a few months before. In 2001, the early favorite to succeed Gov. Bill Janklow in 2002 was Congressman John Thune; his likely candidacy had cleared the field on the Republican side, and left the Democrats without a prominent candidate. During the summer of 2001, however, Thune began to face pressure to switch from the governor’s race and instead challenge U.S. Senator Tim Johnson. As speculation mounted that Thune would run for the Senate, three Republicans surfaced as likely gubernatorial candidates: Attorney General Mark Barnett, who had been seeking an opening to run for governor for years; former Lt. Governor Steve Kirby; and Ron Williamson, a former adjutant general and chief of staff to Governor Janklow. On the Democratic side, USD President Jim Abbott began to consider a candidacy.
Thune launched his US Senate candidacy in Fall 2001, but Mike Rounds was still not among the likely candidates discussed. His name was not included in early polling, and Argus Leader reporter Dave Kranz wrote in his political column on November 4 that “High-level Republicans friends of former state Sen. Mike Rounds, a Pierre Republican, say he won’t seek the governorship.”
Kranz was incorrect, as Rounds launched his candidacy in early December 2001. By that point, Williamson had decided not to run, making the Republican gubernatorial primary field a three-way race between Barnett, Kirby, and Rounds.
At first, Rounds remained an afterthought in the field, however. Barnett, who had been preparing to run for years, had the backing of much of the Republican machine in the state, while Kirby was able to draw on personal wealth and Sioux Falls connections to run a campaign to Barnett’s right.
Rounds, meanwhile, continued to work under the radar. He exhibited a quiet, friendly, level-headed style and, as a former senate majority leader and lifelong Pierre resident, a deep knowledge of state government and state issues that came out in speeches and debates. (I decided to support Rounds after attending a debate on the SDSU campus in Brookings).
Despite that, though, Rounds was massively outspent. He ultimately raised and spent about $150,000 against millions by Barnett and Kirby. For that reason, he likely would have remained in third place, had the two frontrunners not spent their war chests on an increasingly nasty series of attacks against each other.
The negativity began in late March. Kirby took a “no new taxes” pledge and invited his opponents to do likewise. Rounds refused. Barnett took a similar pledge, but then held out the possibility that he might consider a tax increase in an emergency, such as the temporary gas tax Governor Janklow had imposed to fix roads after damaging spring flooding. This prompted the “wiggle, wiggle” ad from the Kirby campaign, which accused Barnett of equivocating – “wiggling” – on the tax pledge.
That attack was pretty standard fare for a competitive campaign, but the ads quickly became nastier. On April 8, Terry Woster wrote a story headlined “Barnett, Kirby throw early punches.” Nearly halfway through the story, a subheadline read “Don’t forget Rounds.” He described Rounds as “a sometimes-overlooked player” in the campaign and quoted him: “For the time being, I haven’t minded being considered by the other two candidates as this fly buzzing over in the corner. I’ve heard several people say just stay out of the negative, there’s enough of that. I’d like to run my spots right between Kirby and Barnett. Hopefully, people will see some differences.”
The Rounds campaign was also very much a family affair – Mike’s sister Michele and his brother Jamie both played key roles and many members of his large family volunteered as well. There was no paid staff.
Mike’s wife, Jean, preferred to stay in the background, but she played the pivotal role in Rounds’ victory. She had agreed to Mike running on the condition that he never run a negative ad or attack his opponents. By late April, the refusal to go negative had become the defining characteristic of the Rounds campaign. Dave Kranz wrote a column on April 21 headlined “Rounds asks Barnett, Kirby to end the feuding.” He opened it as follows:
On most days it is not uncommon for Republicans to call and volunteer that they are fed up with the hostile exchanges between gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby.
Then they say they are voting for Mike Rounds.
Rounds, a former state Senate majority leader from Pierre, is troubled about the tone of the Republican gubernatorial race and is trying to sort out his role as peacemaker and candidate on his own behalf.
What troubles him most, though, is talk that the heated exchanges between his two opponents could cost Republicans the chair they feel they have the inherent right to occupy. . . .
“I have talked to both of them privately and asked them where they see it going. In both cases, at some point, this has got to stop and both men agreed,” Rounds said. “I don’t think either feels comfortable with the way the race is going. They tell me they have a difficult time sleeping.”
Like many a conflict, though, pride is at stake in ending this.
“Each man thinks the other started it,” Rounds said.
As the campaign entered its home stretch in May, it started to seem like the ground was shifting. This was the point at which I joined the Rounds campaign, after SDSU’s spring semester ended in early May. I volunteered to work on the campaign and was sent to Rapid City to set up the Rounds field office. There was a definite sense of momentum for Rounds, as many people expressed disgust with the negativity of the frontrunners.
Still, though, the idea of a Rounds win seemed hard to believe. As late as May 24, Rounds had to address rumors that he was angling to be Barnett’s lieutenant governor selection, saying to Dave Kranz: “My volunteer campaign staff and I are focused on winning on June 4.” The idea had some basis, though, in the friendly relationship Rounds and Barnett maintained throughout the primary – even flying together to campaign events at times. I was later told that Barnett’s staff would occasionally share polling data with Rounds, who couldn’t afford to do his own polling.
Perhaps the iconic image of Mike Rounds came from Primary Day, June 4. While his opponents continued to slug it out on the airwaves, he stood on the sidewalk in front of his campaign office in Rapid City, smiling and waving at cars as his son, Chris, and I held a banner. I believe he spent time in Sioux Falls that day doing the same thing. There was a feeling of a groundswell, and those of us on the team allowed ourselves to imagine that he might just win a narrow victory.
We were wrong – Mike Rounds did not win a narrow victory. At the election night party in Pierre that night – held in an old gas station on Capitol Avenue that had been converted into the Rounds headquarters – the first precincts came in and showed Rounds leading with 45% of the vote. A cheer broke out until Mike reminded us these were Hughes County precincts – literally his home in Pierre – and we should not expect the lead to hold.
But it did hold. When the votes were counted, Rounds had won 44.3% to 29.5% for Barnett and 26.1% for Kirby. Political observers were stunned – not just by Rounds’ victory but by its magnitude. Dave Kranz’s analysis on June 6 was headlined “The good-guy strategy pays off.” Kranz wrote: “As Republicans scrambled to show support for their new nominee, political observers looked for the reasons behind the upset victory.”
Barnett and Kirby made joint appearances with Rounds to following morning and promised their support. In the early days, there was speculation that Rounds could be vulnerable to the Democratic nominee, Jim Abbott, who was better-known and initially better-funded. Terry Woster wrote on June 9: “There’s a rather upside-down feel to the race for South Dakota governor. A Democrat with an experienced campaign manager, a solid organization and a strong advertising presence and fundraising system faces a relatively unknown Republican scrambling to turn his volunteer and family campaign into a formal paid organization and get dependable financing.”
That early analysis proved wrong, though, and for a reason that Jim Abbott himself shared with me years later: “There’s no worse feeling than waking up the day after the election to find you’re running against a guy who never made an enemy.”
Abbott felt that he could have beaten Barnett or Kirby, but Rounds’ victory made him a hero and nearly immune to attack or criticism. The Republican Party quickly rallied around Mike and he was able to raise the money and wage the campaign he needed to win, handily, in November.
Mike Rounds had never lost an election when he ran in 2002 – he was 5-0 in State Senate contests. In 2002, against all the odds, he went 2-0. In the years since, he has been reelected Governor, and won two primaries and two general elections for U.S. Senate. He is still undefeated at 12-0 and is today one of the longest-serving elected officials in South Dakota history – all because he stayed positive, talked about the issues, and won that upset on June 4, 2002.