There are many ways to measure South Dakota’s top political figures. This blog has in the past attempted a few: the “Over 25 Club” of state elected officials was chosen objectively, looking at least twenty-five years of service; whereas the “Old Bulls of the SD Legislature” was a subjective list of key legislators of the 1980s.
This post tries another approach – looking at those candidates who have won at least 1,000,000 general election votes, cumulatively, in their careers. The list includes all general elections since statehood for U.S. Senate, U.S. House (including the era when South Dakota has more than one congressional district), and statewide elected offices. It does not include non-partisan elections or elections for judicial offices. It also doesn’t credit votes to candidates for lieutenant governor since 1974, when the office was first elected jointly with the governor.
Based on that criteria, there are nine members of the “Million Vote Club” – here they are:
- 1. Bernard Linn – 1,615,880 votes in 11 elections – Linn served 22 years as commissioner of school and public lands from 1949-71. He had previously served as Meade County school superintendent, and then as deputy commissioner of school and public lands from 1940-49. This was during the era when state constitutional offices served two years terms (four-year terms began in 1974), so Linn was first elected in 1948 and was reelected every two years thereafter, until 1968. He never lost a statewide general election.
- 2. Tim Johnson – 1,553,967 votes in 8 elections – Johnson served 36 years in state and federal office, longer than anyone else in state history. Remarkably for a Democrat, Johnson was undefeated in eight bids for statewide office, first winning election to the U.S. House in 1986 and begin reelected every two years thereafter until 1996, when he won his first of three terms in the U.S. Senate. He retired in 2014, facing health issues following a congenital brain defect in 2006 as well as a competitive challenge from former Governor Mike Rounds.
- 3. John Thune – 1,519,857 votes in 7 elections – Thune, a former Jim Abdnor staffer, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1996, succeeding Tim Johnson, and was reelected twice by wide margins. Thune’s sole election loss is an extremely narrow defeat in his 2002 challenge of Tim Johnson for U.S. Senate; two years later he defeated Tom Daschle. Thune became the only U.S. Senator in South Dakota history to run unopposed in 2010, and was reelected again in 2016. He is currently a heavy favorite to be reelected in 2022; if he is reelected, he would join Karl Mundt as only the second U.S. Senator from South Dakota to serve four terms. In addition, Thune will almost assuredly win enough votes in 2022 to vault himself into first place on this list, making him the top vote-getter in South Dakota history.
- 4. Vern Larson – 1,362,840 votes in 8 elections – Larson is the longest-serving constitutional officer in South Dakota history. He served six terms as state auditor, first winning election in 1978 and being reelected to five four-year terms thereafter. The passage of term limits in 1992 required Larson to leave the auditor’s office in 2002 and he instead ran for state treasurer, serving two terms from 2003-11. Larson never lost in his eight bids for state office and twice, in 1998 and 2006, ran unopposed. He later filled a vacancy as commissioner of school and public lands from 2013-15 but was appointed, not elected, to that role.
- 5. Tom Daschle – 1,224,092 votes in 8 elections – Daschle, a Democrat and former staffer to Jim Abourezk, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1978, winning election in the state’s First District against Republican Leo Thorsness by only 139 votes. He was reelected in 1980. Then, in 1982, South Dakota lost its second House seat, and Daschle faced off against fellow incumbent Clint Roberts, the Republican congressman from the Second District. Daschle won that race by less than 3%, then was reelected in 1984. In 1986, he ran for U.S. Senate, facing off against Senator Abdnor, who was running in a bad Republican year and had weathered a competitive primary with Governor Bill Janklow. Daschle won by just over 3%, and was easily reelected in 1992 and 1998. He climbed the ladder in the U.S. Senate, becoming Democratic Leader in 1995 and serving two stints as Majority Leader. It ended for Daschle in 2004 with his first-ever election loss, as John Thune defeated him by 1.2% in 2004.
- 6. Karl Mundt – 1,217,177 votes in 10 elections – Mundt is the longest-serving member of Congress from South Dakota in history, and the only U.S. Senator from South Dakota to be elected four times (a distinction John Thune will likely match this year). Mundt narrowly lost his first bid for U.S. House in 1936, when he challenged Democratic incumbent Fred Hildebrandt for the First District seat. Two years later, Hildebrandt ran for U.S. Senate and Mundt won his first of six terms in the U.S. House. In 1948, Mundt ran for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Senator Harlan J. Bushfield (who in fact died shortly before the election). Mundt won in 1948 and was reelected three times, including a close race in 1960 against Congressman George McGovern. During his fourth and final term, Mundt suffered a stroke that incapacitated him, but he did not resign and retired at the end of his term in 1973.
- 7. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin votes in 1,126,095 – 6 elections – Herseth Sandlin was the granddaughter of Governor Ralph Herseth and Secretary of State Lorna Herseth. She first ran for U.S. House in 2002, losing a competitive campaign to outgoing Governor Bill Janklow. When Janklow resigned in early 2004, Herseth won the special election to succeed him, and then was reelected in 2004, 2006, and 2008, making her the first woman to win a full term in Congress from South Dakota. Herseth lost reelection in 2010 to Republican challenger Kristi Noem, and today serves as president of Augustana University.
- 8. George McGovern – 1,072,290 votes in 8 elections – McGovern took on the task of rejuvenating the moribund South Dakota Democratic Party in the 1950s. He won election to the U.S. House in 1956, defeating incumbent Harold Lovre, and was reelected in 1958. In 1960, McGovern challenged U.S. Senator Karl Mundt, losing by just under 5%. President Kennedy appointed McGovern as the first director of the Food for Peace program, and then McGovern returned in 1962, winning a U.S. Senate seat by 597 votes against incumbent Joe Bottum, a Republican who had been appointed to complete the term of the late U.S. Senator Francis Case. McGovern was reelected in 1968. In 1972, he was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and this count includes the 139,945 votes that the ticket of McGovern and Sargent Shriver received in South Dakota. McGovern failed to carry South Dakota, winning only Massachusetts and DC as he lost in a landslide to incumbent President Richard Nixon. Two years later, he won a competitive reelection to the U.S. Senate against Leo Thorsness, who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McGovern’s political career ended in 1980, when he lost to Republican Jim Abdnor.
- 9. Bill Janklow – 1,037,359 votes in 6 elections – Janklow began his career in 1974 when, as an assistant attorney general, he challenged his boss and the Democratic incumbent, Kermit Sande. Janklow won his first of four terms as governor in 1978, serving from 1979-87 and again from 1995-2003. He was elected to the U.S. House in 2002 but resigned in early 2004. Janklow never lost a general election – his only electoral setback was his 1986 primary challenge to incumbent U.S. Senator Jim Abdnor.
The Million Vote Club will very likely have four new members after the 2022 election. These four candidates, all Republicans, will each almost certainly win enough votes this fall to surpass 1,000,000 in their electoral careers:
- Kristi Noem – currently 955,277 in 5 elections – Noem won four election for U.S. House before being elected governor in 2018.
- Dusty Johnson – currently 938,963 in 4 elections – Johnson was twice elected to the Public Utilities Commission and is seeking his third term in the U.S. House.
- Rich Sattgast – currently 910,910 in 5 elections – Sattgast served two terms as state auditor, then two as state treasurer, then returned as state auditor in 2018; he is running again in 2022.
- Chris Nelson – currently 894,569 in 4 elections – Nelson served two terms as secretary of state and is running for a third term on the PUC.
If it seems like this list is mostly recent political figures (Bernard Linn notwithstanding), that is true. There are more people, and more voters, in South Dakota than ever before, so recent political figures win more votes each time they run. Candidates who have served in the U.S. House benefit as well, as they are able to run every two years. The recent strength of the South Dakota Republican Party also benefits recent candidates, who are winning my larger margins – among those mentioned above, John Thune, Vern Larson, Rich Sattgast, Chris Nelson, and Dusty Johnson have all run without Democratic opposition at least once.
Governors and other state constitutional office, in contrast, suffer a bit because they run every four years and always in non-presidential years, when there is generally lower turnout. These offices ran every two years prior to 1974, but at that time the population was less and, at least for much of the state’s history, the elections tended to be more competitive.