History in the Making: 2022 Gubernatorial Milestones

Gov. Kristi Noem and Democratic nominee Jamie Smith, at the Dakota News Now/KOTA debate on September 30, 2022.

The 2022 gubernatorial election is little more than a month away. Voters will choose between the incumbent governor, Republican Kristi Noem, the Democratic challenger, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, and Libertarian Tracy Quint.

Every election makes history, and there are a number of the other “firsts” and historical milestones that could be set by the 2022 gubernatorial election.

As an incumbent in a Republican state, Noem is a favorite to be reelected. She looks to continue the Republican Party’s control of the Governor’s Office with a 12th straight election win, going back to 1978, and to become the seventh consecutive elected governor to win a second term. Smith hopes to break both of those streaks. His campaign looks back to 1970, when Richard F. Kneip was the last newly-elected Democratic governor, and incumbent Frank Farrar was the last elected governor to lose reelection.

If Noem is reelected, the 2022 election will be little more than a footnote in the story of her political career and of South Dakota politics in the 2020s. If Smith beats the odds and wins, it would be a once-in-a-generation upset – Smith would not only be the first Democratic governor since Harvey Wollman (who succeeded Kneip when he resigned in 1978), but he would be the first Democrat to win any statewide office in South Dakota since 2008, when U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Public Utilities Commissioner Steve Kolbeck each won their final terms. Since that time, South Dakota’s voter registration and political environment have moved strongly toward the Republican Party.

Although campaigns and media outlets differ as to the state of the race, it is unlikely to be the closest in South Dakota history. That happened in 1896, when Populist Andrew E. Lee prevailed by 315 votes, or 0.4%. Noem’s 2018 victory over Democrat Billie Sutton, by 3.4%, was the closest win since 1964 and the 8th closest in state history. For a governor seeking reelection, the closest reelection win also was won by Andrew E. Lee, who won a second term by 370 votes, or 0.5%, in 1898.

Here are some more milestones that could be set in this year’s election:

If Kristi Noem and Larry Rhoden are reelected…

If Jamie Smith and Jennifer Keintz are elected…

  • Jamie Smith would be the 34th Governor of South Dakota. His running mate, Jennifer Keintz, would be the 40th Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota.
  • Smith would the 6th Democratic governor, and the 7th non-Republican. As noted above, Smith would be the first Democratic governor since Harvey Wollman, who served from 1978-79 following the resignation of Richard F. Kneip. He would be the first Democrat elected governor since Kneip, who won election victories in 1970, 1972, and 1974.
  • Jamie Smith follows a long line of party floor leaders who have run for governor. He would be the fourth Democratic leader to serve as governor, following Ralph Herseth, Richard F. Kneip, and Harvey Wollman. He would be the 24th governor with legislative experience, and the 14th governor to have held a leadership role in the state legislature.
  • A Smith victory would end the aforementioned streak of Republican control of the South Dakota governor’s office that began in 1979. It would also make Noem the 6th governor to lose reelection in a general election.
  • Smith was born in Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County and still lives there. He would be the 16th governor born in South Dakota, the 4th born in Minnehaha County, the 5th to be elected from Minnehaha County, and the 3rd to be elected from Sioux Falls (following Joe Foss and Nils Boe).
  • Smith would be the 4th graduate of Washington High School in Sioux Falls to serve as governor, following Joe Foss, Nils Boe, and George S. Mickelson. The only other high school to count more than one governor amongst its graduates is the now-defunct Augustana Academy in Canton, a Lutheran high school that graduated Sigurd Anderson and Archie Gubbrud.
  • Smith would be the 1st graduate of Augustana University to serve as governor. Only three in-state universities have governors amongst their alumni: USD (which has 10), SDSU (which has two, Rounds and Noem), and now-defunct Huron College (which has one, Harvey Wollman).
  • Smith would be the 9th Lutheran to serve as governor; it is the most common religious affiliation for South Dakota governors.
  • Smith would be at least the 7th former teacher to serve as governor, following Mellette, Herreid, Crawford, Sharpe, Anderson, and Wollman. Many South Dakota governors have worked in business, and Smith would be at least the fourth to have worked in real estate, following Vessey, Byrne, and Rounds.
  • Smith would take office on January 7, 2023, 24 days before his 52nd birthday. That would place him 12th oldest out of 34, and squarely within the typical age range – all but 7 governors took office while in their 40s or 50s. The average age for South Dakota’s governors to date has been 49 years, 231 days.
  • Smith was born on January 31, 1971. He would share his January 31 birthday with George S. Mickelson, who was born on that date in 1941. They would be the first South Dakota governors to share a birthday.
  • Assuming Smith keeps his facial hair, he would be the state’s first mustachioed chief executive since Warren E. Green, who served from 1931-33.
  • Jennifer Keintz would be the state’s 2nd female lieutenant governor, following Carole Hillard who served with Governor Bill Janklow from 1995-2003. Keintz would be the 1st Democratic female lieutenant governor. She is the 5th woman to join a Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor, following Shirley Halleen of Sioux Falls in 1986, Elsie Meeks of Interior in 1998, Susy Blake of Sioux Falls in 2014, and Michelle Lavallee of Sioux Falls in 2018. This is third consecutive gubernatorial election to include a female nominee for lieutenant governor.
  • Keintz would be the 1st lieutenant governor from Eden, and the 3rd from Marshall County, following Republicans Daniel T. Hindman (1897-99) and John E. McDougall (1905-07), who were both from Britton.