The South Dakota Democratic Party held its state convention this weekend to adopt its platform and nominate candidates for statewide offices. Democrats had already nominated Brian Bengs for U.S. Senate and Jamie Smith for Governor; they ran without opposition in the June Democratic primary. No Democrat ran for U.S. House, so incumbent Dusty Johnson will face only a Libertarian opponent in the fall.
At the convention, Democrats filled out its slates of statewide candidates, ratifying Jamie Smith’s selection of Jennifer Keintz for lieutenant governor, and picking nominees for secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, commissioner of school and public lands, and public utilities commissioner.
Notably, though, the party did not field a candidate for attorney general. This means that Marty Jackley, who previously held the office from 2009-19 and was a 2018 candidate for governor, will return to the office unopposed. Democrats also declined to oppose Jackley in 2014 but, in that year, he still faced Libertarian nominee Chad Haber. This year, the Libertarians also left the office unchallenged, which makes Jackley the only candidate on the November ballot.
A candidate being elected to statewide office in a partisan election without opposition is exceptionally rare in South Dakota history, and was nearly unprecedented prior to the last quarter century. (The state used to elect a non-partisan “superintendent of public instruction” that often ran unopposed).
Notably, Jackley is the first candidate in South Dakota history to run for an open statewide office without any opposition. Every other instance of an unopposed election in state history involved an incumbent seeking reelection. Jackley does not currently hold the attorney general’s office but, as the first former attorney general to seek to return to the office, he is all but an incumbent.
Here are the eight times in South Dakota history that a statewide elected official has run in a partisan election unopposed:
1946: Republican Public Utilities Commissioner C. L. “Roy” Doherty becomes the first candidate in South Dakota history to win a statewide elected office without opposition. Doherty had been elected in a 1936 special election following the resignation of Democratic incumbent Windsor Doherty, and narrowly defeated Democrat Fred B. Ray, whom Governor Tom Berry had appointed to the seat. Roy Doherty won reelection to a full term in 1940, and then was unopposed in 1946. He went on to win three more contested elections, serving on the PUC for 34 years from 1936-71, making him one of the longest-serving elected officials in state history.
1998: Term limits had been passed by South Dakota voters in 1992. Governors had been term-limited prior to that, but for the first time term limits were applied to down-ticket state constitutional offices. This meant that longtime incumbents running in 1998 could not seek reelection in 2002. South Dakota Democrats opted not to challenge two popular incumbents: Attorney General Mark Barnett, who was seeking a third term in 1998, and State Auditor Vern Larson, who was running for a fourth term (and would later serve two terms as state treasurer and a brief period as commissioner of school and public lands).
2006: As in 1998, South Dakota Democrats did not challenge popular incumbents for several statewide offices: Chris Nelson, who was seeking a second term as secretary of state; Rich Sattgast, who was seeking a second term as state auditor; and Vern Larson, who was running for reelection as state treasurer. Larson, who is the longest-serving constitutional officer in state history, thus became the only candidate to run unopposed for statewide office twice.
2010: U.S. Senator John Thune became the first person in South Dakota history to be elected to federal office without opposition. After winning an extremely hard-fought election in 2004 against incumbent Tom Daschle, who was a three-term incumbent and the Democratic leader in the Senate, Thune won reelection in 2010 without opposition. It remains the only time in South Dakota history that a federal office has gone completely unopposed. (Congressman Dusty Johnson was reelected with only a Libertarian opponent in 2020 and also faces only a Libertarian in 2022).
2022: As stated above, Marty Jackley is running unopposed for attorney general, the first time in state history that a major party has failed to contest an open statewide office.