Top election performers, all-time: UPDATED

The following post has been revised to include the preliminary results from the 2016 general election. Both U.S. Senator John Thune and Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson broke into the top-ten list.

The following are the Top Ten highest percentages of the vote won in South Dakota statewide elections.  Results are only included if they meet the following criteria:

  • Must be a statewide election – South Dakota used to have more than one U.S. House seat, and elections within a district are not included.
  • Must include nominees of both major parties – this list does not include unopposed results, such as Thune for Senate in 2010, or elections where there was only major party nominee, such as Jackley for Attorney General in 2014.
  • Must be a partisan election – South Dakota used to elect a non-partisan “Superintendent of Public Instruction” and these results are not included.

Within those parameters, here are the top ten:

1.  75.4% – Chris Nelson (R) – 2016 Public Utilities Commission (new entry)

chrisbioAfter years as the state elections supervisor, Nelson’s career in elected office began in 2002 when he was elected Secretary of State, and he has been a reliably strong general election candidate.  He was reelected without opposition in 2006.  In 2010, Governor Dennis Daugaard appointed Nelson to the Public Utilities Commission to succeed Dusty Johnson, who had resigned to serve as Daugaard’s chief of staff.  Nelson won a special election in 2012 with 67.0% for the remainder of Johnson’s term, and won a full six-year term in 2016 with 75.4%, setting the all-time record.

Along with Senator Thune, Nelson made 2016 one of two elections to have two candidates finish in the top ten – the other was 1904.

2.  75.1% – John Thune (R) – 1998 U.S. House

220px-john_thune_official_portrait_111th_congressCongressman John Thune won the open U.S. House seat in 1996.  Incumbent Tim Johnson vacated the seat to challenge Senator Larry Presser.  In 1996, Thune defeated Democrat Rick Weiland with 57.7% of the vote.  Two years, later Thune was reelected in a record-setting fashion, becoming the only statewide candidate to exceed 75% in an election contested by both parties.  He won 75.1% against challenger Jeff Moser.

3.  74.5% – Larry Pressler (R) – 1984 U.S. Senate

Senator Pressler was an electoral dynamo early in his career.  He won reelection to his First District U.S. House seat in 1976 with 79.8% of the vote (not included in this list as it was not a statewide election).  Pressler won an open U.S. Senate seat in 1978, defeating former Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett with 66.8% of the vote.  Six years later, in 1984, he won reelection with 74.5%, defeating longtime Democratic staffer George Cunningham.

4.  73.4% – John Thune (R) – 2000 U.S. House

Following his record-setting reelection in 1998, Congressman Thune recorded another strong finish, defeating Democrat Curt Hohn with 73.4%.

5.  73.2% – Dusty Johnson (R) – 2010 Public Utilities Commission

Johnson was first elected to the PUC in 2004, defeating three-term incumbent Democrat Jim Burg.  In 2010, he recorded an overwhelming victory over challenger Doyle Karpen, winning 73.2%.  In a year when Senator Thune was reelected without opposition and Republicans won every statewide race, Johnson ran ahead of fellow Republican candidates Dennis Daugaard, Kristi Noem, Marty Jackley, Steve Barnett, Rich Sattgast, Jason Gant, and Jarrod Johnson.

6.  71.8% – John Thune (R) – 2016 U.S. Senate (new entry)

Senator Thune notched his third entry on the top ten list, defeating Democratic challenger Jay Williams with 71.8% of the vote.  This followed his earlier defeats of Jeff Moser in 1998 and Curt Hohn in 2000 in making the list.  Thune is also the only U.S. Senator to be reelected from South Dakota without opposition, in 2010.

7.  71.7% – Tim Johnson (D) – 1988 U.S. House

Johnson was first elected in 1986, defeating Republican Dale Bell.  In 1988, he defeated longtime Republican State Treasurer Dave Volk, recording the strongest-ever vote for a Democratic candidate with 71.7%.  Johnson’s electoral dominance continued with wins of 67.6% in 1990 and 69.1% in 1992.

8.  71.7% – Philo Hall (R) – 1904 Attorney General

Hall was first elected attorney general in 1902.  In 1904, Republicans swept the statewide elections in 1904, with Hall leading the ticket with 71.7% in a defeat of Democrat Edmund W. Fiske and two minor candidates.  Two years later, Hall was elected to U.S. House.  He served a single term, but failed to be nominated in 1908.

9.  71.4% – C. B. Collins (R) – 1904 State Treasurer

Collins was elected state treasurer in 1902 and was easily reelected in 1904, winning 71.4% against Democrat P. F. McClure.  The 1904 election is one of two to have two candidates make this top ten list – the other is 2016.

10.  71.0% – Robert Dollard (R) – 1889 Attorney General

Dollard was elected the state’s first attorney general in 1889.  Republicans won every statewide office in the first elections for the new state, with Dollard leading the ticket with 71.0%.  Dollard is the only candidate on the top ten list who was not an incumbent winning reelection.  He was reelected in 1890.

Now out of the top ten:

11.  70.9% – Bill Janklow/Lowell Hansen – 1982 Governor/Lt. Governor

The Janklow/Hansen ticket was elected in 1978, defeating a Democratic ticket of Roger McKellips and Billie Sutton.  In 1982, Janklow/Hansen easily overcame a challenge from Democrats Mike O’Connor and Willis Danekas.  Following his two terms as governor, Janklow unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Jim Abdnor in the 1986 Republican Primary for U.S. Senate.  Eight years later, he defeated Governor Walter Dale Miller in the 1994 Republican Primary for governor and prevailed in the general election against Dakota Wesleyan University President Jim Beddow.  Janklow became the first governor to return to the office, and following two terms was elected to a single term in the U.S. House.

Lt. Governor Lowell Hansen ran for governor in 1986, finishing third in the Republican primary behind former house speaker George S. Mickelson and former congressman Clint Roberts.

12.  70.5% – Dennis Daugaard/Matt Michels – 2014 Governor/Lt. Governor

The Daugaard/Michels ticket was first elected in 2010, prevailing over Democrats Scott Heidepriem and Ben Arndt in the midst of a Republican wave that saw the Republicans win every statewide election and gain 15 legislative seats.  Daugaard/Michels was easily reelected in 2014, defeating Democrats Susan Wismer and Susy Blake with 70.5% of the vote.

The Democratic ticket also made history, however, as Wismer was the first woman to be nominated by a major party for Governor of South Dakota, and the Wismer/Blake ticket was only the fourth ticket for governor/lt. governor in the nation to feature two women.


2016 Election Preview: South Dakota State Legislature

This is the fifth of several posts previewing the Tuesday election through a historical lens.  The first part was an introductionthe second part looked at South Dakota’s history of supporting Republican presidential ticketsthe third part looked at the six U.S. Senators from South Dakota  who have been elected three times; and the fourth part compared the Republican Party’s current winning streak in statewide races to other winning streaks in state history.

Among the other items on the ballot, South Dakota voters will elect today the 105 state legislators who will represent them for the next two years.  With so a total lack of polling in legislative races, one cannot say with certainty how the elections will turnout, but there is very little doubt that Republicans will continue to control both houses of the legislature. And, even if the Republicans margins slip, they are still likely to hold legislative margins that exceed any in the past fifty years.

photo-sep-20-12-18-35-pm-1The 2015-16 had, between the two houses, 85 Republicans and only 20 Democrat.  This is the most Republicans to serve in the State Legislature since the legislature’s current size of 105 (30 senators and 70 representatives) was set in 1973.

The current total of 85 Republican members equates to 81% of the legislative seats, the highest since the 1967-68 legislature, which had 93 Republicans and 17 Democrats (84.5% Republican).

Looking at gubernatorial administrations, the Republicans during the first six years of the Daugaard Administration have held, on average, 82/105 seats (78.1% of the total).  That administration average is the highest since the Farrar Administration, when Republicans controlled 86/110 seats, or 78.2%.

The most Republican legislature in state history was elected in 1952 – Republicans controlled the Senate 35-0 and the House 73-2, for a cumulate percentage of 98.2%.

The most Democratic legislature in state history was elected in 1932, the year of the FDR landslide.  Democrats controlled the Senate 29-16 and the House 70-33, holding 66.9% of the seats.  (At that time, the Senate had 45 seats and the House had 103; they were reduced to 35 and 75 in 1939).

There are a few other instances where the Republicans did not hold control of the legislature:

  • In 1891, the State House had 58 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and 44 Independents, who were a populist party.  The Democrats and Independents joined together to organize the House.
  • Likewise in 1897, a Democrat/Populist coalition controlled both houses.  The Senate was 21 R, 2 D, 20 Populist; and the House was 39 R, 10 D, and 35 P.
  • Democrats next took control in the aforementioned FDR landslide of 1932.  They controlled both houses in 1933 and 1935.  In the 1937 session, Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans retook the House.  (Note that, prior to 1963-64, the legislature only met in odd-numbered years.)
  • In 1958, Democrats took the Senate 20-15 as Democrat Ralph Herseth won the governor’s office.  Republicans retained control of the House, and in 1960 House Speaker Archie Gubbrud defeated Herseth for reelection.
  • In 1973-4, during the Kneip Administration, Democrats controlled the legislature by the narrowest of margins:  An 18-17 margin in the Senate, and a 35-35 tie in the House.  Under House rules, in the case of a tie, the Governor’s party organizes the House.  In 1975-6, Democrats retained control of the Senate, 19-16, but lost the House.
  • Finally, in 1993-94, the Democrats won control of the Senate, 20-15, during the final two years of the Mickelson/Miller Administration.

Below are two line graphs, visualizing partisan control of the Senate and House since statehood.  Following those graphs is a chart of partisan control, listed by year and with the governor who was in office for each two-year legislative term.


1889 Mellette REP 37 7 1 106 13 5
1891 Mellette REP 22 8 13 58 20 44
1893 Sheldon REP 35 4 4 69 4 10
1895 Sheldon REP 35 3 5 69 2 13
1897 Lee POP 21 2 20 39 10 35
1899 Lee POP 31 4 10 61 9 17
1901 Herreid REP 39 1 5 79 5 3
1903 Herreid REP 41 3 1 76 6 5
1905 Elrod REP 41 2 2 87 2
1907 Crawford REP 38 7 80 9
1909 Vessey REP 39 6 95 9
1911 Vessey REP 33 11 1 99 4 1
1913 Byrne REP 33 11 1 88 14 1
1915 Byrne REP 35 10 85 18
1917 Norbeck REP 35 10 91 12
1919 Norbeck REP 43 2 90 10 3
1921 McMaster REP 44 1 94 4 5
1923 McMaster REP 34 9 2 84 10 9
1925 Gunderson REP 34 10 1 85 11 7
1927 Bulow DEM 29 16 81 21 1
1929 Bulow DEM 33 12 83 20
1931 Green REP 31 14 79 24
1933 Berry DEM 16 29 33 70
1935 Berry DEM 14 31 40 63
1937 Jensen REP 22 23 66 37
1939 Bushfield REP 30 5 62 13
1941 Bushfield REP 31 4 65 10
1943 Sharpe REP 31 4 69 6
1945 Sharpe REP 35 0 72 3
1947 Mickelson REP 35 0 71 4
1949 Mickelson REP 27 8 64 11
1951 Anderson REP 29 6 66 9
1953 Anderson REP 35 0 73 2
1955 Foss REP 29 6 57 18
1957 Foss REP 18 17 48 27
1959 Herseth DEM 15 20 43 32
1961 Gubbrud REP 23 12 57 18
1963-64 Gubbrud REP 26 9 58 17
1965-66 Boe REP 18 16 1 45 30
1967-68 Boe REP 29 6 64 11
1969-70 Farrar REP 27 8 59 16
1971-72 Kneip DEM 24 11 46 29
1973-74 Kneip DEM 17 18 35 35*
1975-76 Kneip DEM 16 19 37 33
1977-78 Kneip DEM 24 11 48 22
1979-80 Janklow REP 24 11 48 22
1981-82 Janklow REP 25 10 49 21
1983-84 Janklow REP 26 9 54 16
1985-86 Janklow REP 25 10 57 13
1987-88 Mickelson REP 24 11 48 22
1989-90 Mickelson REP 20 15 46 24
1991-92 Mickelson REP 18 17 45 25
1993-94 Mickelson-Miller REP 15 20 41 29
1995-96 Janklow REP 19 16 46 24
1997-98 Janklow REP 22 13 48 22
1999-00 Janklow REP 22 13 51 19
2001-02 Janklow REP 24 11 50 20
2003-04 Rounds REP 26 9 49 21
2005-06 Rounds REP 25 10 51 19
2007-08 Rounds REP 20 15 50 20
2009-10 Rounds REP 21 14 45 25
2011-12 Daugaard REP 30 5 50 19 1
2013-14 Daugaard REP 28 7 53 17
2015-16 Daugaard REP 27 8 58 12
2017-18 Daugaard REP  ? ? ?  ?

The party or coalition controlling each house is designated in bold.  In 1973-74, the State House was evenly divided at 35-35, and by rule the governor’s party, the Democrats, organized the chamber.

2016 Election Preview: GOP winning streak may continue, but it’s nowhere close to historic highs.

This is the fourth of several posts previewing the Tuesday election through a historical lens.  The first part was an introductionthe second part looked at South Dakota’s history of supporting Republican presidential tickets; and the third part looked at the six U.S. Senators from South Dakota  who have been elected three times.

The last few years have brought talk in South Dakota about the resurgence of the Republican Party.  In 2014, for the first time since 1962, the Republicans won control of the state’s entire congressional delegation, electing Senator Mike Rounds to serve alongside Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem.

The Democrats have not won a statewide election in South Dakota since 2008, when Senator Tim Johnson and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin were both reelected.  The Republican winning streak appears likely to continue tomorrow night, with the Trump presidential ticket, Thune, Noem, and Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson all favored to carry South Dakota.

Although the Republican’s winning streak is unusual to the modern observer, there have been several longer multi-year winning streaks in South Dakota’s history, all achieved by the Republican Party.  (These streaks include statewide elections for President, federal offices, and state offices.  They also include U.S. House elections that were conducted by district, at the time when South Dakota had more than one U.S. House seat).

Here are the longest winning streaks:

1.  101 Republican election victories, from 1938 to 1954.

Harlan Bushfield

The longest Republican winning streak began as South Dakota emerged from the Great Depression and continued for 9 general elections over 16 years.

In 1932, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt carried South Dakota, as Democrats elected Tom Berry as Governor and won control of the legislature.  Only Republican Senator Peter Norbeck bucked the trend.  Democrats also won every federal and statewide election in 1934.

By 1936, Republicans began to bounce back.  The party ran a vigorous general election campaign, led by State Party Chairman Harlan Bushfield.  Although the Roosevelt presidential ticket still carried South Dakota, Republican Leslie Jensen defeated Governor Tom Berry in his bid for a third term, and Republican Francis Case defeated Democratic incumbent Theodore Werner for the “west river” Second District U.S. House seat.

This solidified in 1938, as Republicans won every federal and statewide election on the ballot.  Bushfield was elected Governor, Chan Gurney was elected to U.S. Senate, and Karl Mundt won the “east river” First District U.S. House seat.

The winning streak continued with the Republicans winning every federal and statewide election in the 1940s, including the election of Governors M. Q. Sharpe and George T. Mickelson, the election of Governor Bushfield to the U.S. Senate, and the election of Karl Mundt to Bushfield’s seat in 1948.  South Dakota also returned to the Republican column in presidential politics, supporting FDR’s Republican opponents – Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Thomas Dewey in 1944 – and Dewey against President Truman in 1948.

The 1952 election was the high-point for the Republicans.  In that year, Eisenhower carried South Dakota with 69%, Governor Sigurd Anderson was reelected with 70%, Congressmen Harold Lovre and E.Y. Berry were both reelected with 69%, and the new state legislature had 108 Republicans and only 2 Democrats.

The end of this winning streak was due to the efforts of George McGovern.  Shortly after the 1952 Republican landslide, McGovern became the Democratic Party’s executive secretary, and began the slow work of rebuilding the party from rock bottom.  His efforts paid off in 1956, when McGovern ended the GOP winning streak by defeating incumbent Congressman Lovre for the First District U.S. House seat.  That same year, Ralph Herseth won 46% in a competitive challenge to incumbent Governor Joe Foss.  Two years later, McGovern held off a challenge from outgoing Governor Foss, and Herseth was elected to succeed Foss as governor.

2.  83 Republican election victories, from 1900 to 1912.

This streak began with the demise of the “fusion” between the Populist and Democratic parties, which had elected Governor Andrew E. Lee and Congressmen Freeman Knowles and John E. Kelley in 1896.  The state legislature elected in 1896 was split between the three parties, with the tenuous Populist/Democratic coalition holding control.  By 1898, the “fusion” coalition was already fraying – Governor Lee was reelected by a margin of 370 votes, but the Republicans won every other federal and statewide election and recaptured legislative control.

The Republican resurgence was completed in 1900, as Republican Charles Herreid was elected Governor.  In 1896, the state had supported Democrat/Populist William Jennings Bryan for president over Republican William McKinley, but in 1900 the state supported McKinley in rematch against Bryan.

Coe Crawford

This streak continued through the early days of the Republican rift between conservatives and progressives, as conservative governors Herreid and Elrod gave way to progressive governors Crawford and Vessey.

It ended in 1914, which was the year of the first direct election for U.S. Senate in South Dakota.  Progressive Coe Crawford, who had been elected to the Senate in 1908, lost in the primary to conservative Congressman Charles Burke.  Many angry progressives abandoned the Republican ticket to support Democrat Edwin S. Johnson, who defeated Burke 48% to 45% with three minor candidates winning the balance.  Democrat Harry Gandy also captured the open Third District U.S. House seat, which at the time covered west river.

3.  48 Republican election victories, from 1889 to 1894.

At the time of statehood, Republicans were the dominant party in South Dakota.  From the time of Dakota Territory’s creation in 1862, Republicans had controlled the White House for all but four years, and this meant that the territorial officials, who were appointed by the President, were all Republican.  Republicans also earned credit for pushing through statehood for North and South Dakota – Democrats had blocked statehood because of the states’ Republican bent.

Arthur C. Mellette

Therefore, in the first state elections in 1889, Republicans dominated with outgoing territorial governor Arthur Mellette winning the governorship of South Dakota with 69% and Republicans winning every other state office by a like amount.  The first state legislature had 143 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and 6 others (the bodies were initially much larger – 45 senators and 124 representatives).

Republicans continued to win against divided opposition in 1890, 1892 and 1894.  The Democratic Party frequently finished third to the candidates of the “Independent Party,” which was a forerunner of the Populists.  In 1890, Mellette’s share of the vote fell to 45%, but his nearest opponent was populist Henry L. Loucks with 32%.  After two terms, Mellette gave way to Governor Charles H. Sheldon, another Republican.

This streak ended in 1896, when the Populists and Democrats finally agreed to unify behind a single “fusion” ticket, as was described in the previous entry.

4.  41 Republican election victories, from 1920 to 1924.

Peter Norbeck

This three-election streak was ushered in by Governor Peter Norbeck, whose broad Republican support ended years of infighting between conservative and progressive Republicans.  In 1918, Norbeck was reelected and Republicans won every federal and statewide election, save one:  Democratic Congressman Harry Gandy was reelected in his west river Third District seat.

In 1920, Norbeck left the governor’s office and ran for U.S. Senate.  The incumbent, Democrat Edwin S. Johnson, opted to retire rather than face the popular governor.  On a ticket led by Norbeck, Republicans retained the governor’s office with Lt. Governor William McMaster, defeated Congressman Gandy with challenger William Williamson, and won every other federal and statewide race.

The streak continued in 1922 and 1924.  In 1922, McMaster was reelected governor.  In 1924, he joined Norbeck in the U.S. Senate, and Lt. Governor Carl Gunderson succeeded McMaster as governor.

It was Gunderson’s election that led to the end of this streak.  Gunderson was a conservative and his election reignited the progressive-conservative rift.  He initiated investigations into alleged “maladministration” during the Norbeck and McMaster governorships, and ended several of their progressive state-run enterprises.

The backlash against Gunderson surfaced in 1926.  That year, Norbeck handily won a second term in the U.S. Senate, winning 60% despite the attacks from his fellow Republican.  Gunderson, on the other hand, lost reelection to the first Democrat elected governor, W. J. Bulow.  Bulow owed his victory to the crossover votes he won from angry progressive Republican supporters of Norbeck and McMaster.

5.  22 Republican election victories, from 2010 to 2014 (and counting).

Following the 2003 special election to replace Bill Janklow in the U.S. House, Democrats briefly held all three seats in Congress with Senator Tom Daschle, Senator Tim Johnson, and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth.  That ended in 2004, when former Congressman John Thune defeated Senator Daschle.  In 2008, both Johnson and Herseth Sandlin were easily reelected.  That same year, Barack Obama was elected President, with his opponent John McCain carrying South Dakota.

Dennis Daugaard

Obama’s election sowed the seeds for the current Republican streak, as he proved unpopular in South Dakota and drove voter registration trends toward the Republicans.  In 2010, John Thune was unopposed in his Senate reelection bid – a first in South Dakota history.  Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard was easily elected governor.  And state legislator Kristi Noem rode the Republican wave to an upset of Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.  Republicans also won every down-ticket statewide election and gained 15 legislative seats.

The streak continued through 2012 and 2014, with Governor Daugaard winning reelection by a record-setting margin in 2014, and Congresswoman Noem being easily reelected in both years.  The Romney/Ryan presidential ticket easily carried the state in 2012, and Democrats failed to field candidates for several down-ticket races in 2014.

Looking forward

The Republican Party is likely to extend the current streak to 26 wins on Tuesday night, but it will be some time before this streak moves up the list.  Barring a special election, Republicans will need to win every federal and statewide election in 2018, 2020 and 2022 to move ahead of the 1920-24 streak into fourth place.  (South Dakota used to elect statewide candidates every two years, which made elections more frequent).  If Republicans hope to surpass the overall record of 101 set from 1938-54, the party will need to win every federal and statewide election until 2042, which would set a record of 108.  That’s certainly possible, but a 32-year streak is unlikely given the cyclical nature of politics, and would be unprecedented in the history of the state.

(There are other ways to measure relative support for one party or the other.  One way, which reporter Bob Mercer has written about extensively, is party registration.  Another is seats held in the State Legislature, which will be the subject of a future post.)

2016 Election Preview: Will Thune be #7?

This is the third of several posts previewing the Tuesday election through a historical lens.  The first part was an introduction and the second part looked at South Dakota’s history of supporting Republican presidential tickets.

220px-john_thune_official_portrait_111th_congressSenator John Thune is heavily favored to win reelection this Tuesday.  Every public poll has given Thune a strong double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Jay Williams.  FiveThirtyEight gives Thune a 99.8% chance of being reelected, estimating that he will win 64.4% of the vote.

Thune is seeking more than just reelection in 2016.  He is poised to join an elite group of notable figures in South Dakota history, becoming only the seventh South Dakotan to be elected three times to the U.S. Senate.  Here are the other six:

1. Peter Norbeck (R-Redfield) – Norbeck was a businessman, state legislator, and lieutenant governor before being elected Governor in 1916.  During his four years as governor, he founded Custer State Park, held the first pheasant hunting season, and started the state cement plant and other state-owned enterprises.  Norbeck was elected to the Senate in 1920, and reelected in 1926 and 1932.  His 1932 reelection came amidst the FDR Democratic landslide, and he was the only Republican elected statewide in South Dakota that year.  In the Senate, Norbeck was an early advocate for the construction of Mount Rushmore and supported creation of Badlands National Monument and Grand Tetons National Park.  He died in 1936, just over two years before the end of his third term.

Norbeck’s life is recounted in an excellent biography by Gilbert Courtland Fite, available from South Dakota Historical Society Press.

2. Karl E. Mundt (R-Madison) – Mundt was a teacher and a professor at General Beadle State College (today Dakota State University).  He was elected to the U.S. House in 1938, serving for ten years before winning  Senate seat in 1948.  As a Senator, he was a firm anti-communist, becoming a close friend and ally of Richard Nixon.  Mundt is the only U.S. Senator from South Dakota to serve four terms – he won his third over a challenge from Congressman George McGovern.  In late 1969, he suffered a debilitating stroke that robbed him of his ability to speak.  Mundt declined entreaties to resign, and served in his seat until it ended in 1973.  He lost his committee assignments, and his wife, Mary, and longtime staffers operated his Senate office in his absence.

Mundt’s life is chronicled in a detailed and well-researched biography, A Fair Chance for a Free People by Scott Heidepriem.

3. George McGovern (D-Mitchell) – Like Mundt, McGovern was a college professor, working at Dakota Wesleyan.  As executive secretary of the Democratic Party in the 1950s, he brought the party back from its all-time low point, winning a U.S. House seat for himself in 1956 over incumbent Harold Lovre.  After unsuccessfully challenging Senator Mundt in 1960, he served as director of President Kennedy’s “Food for Peace” program, then won the other U.S. Senate seat in 1962.  McGovern was the Democratic nominee for President in 1972, losing badly to President Nixon in a 49-state sweep.  He won a third term in 1974, but his status as a liberal icon made him vulnerable, and he was defeated amidst the 1980 Reagan Revolution by Congressman Jim Abdnor.

Several books have been written about McGovern, including most recently The Rise of a Prairie Statesman by Thomas J. Knock.  Also recommended are Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (an example of Thompson’s unique “gonzo journalism”), and Joshua M. Glasser’s excellent book The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, which chronicles the disastrous selection and withdrawal of Senator Eagleton.  (Pivotal scenes in the book take place at Custer State Park’s Sylvan Lake Lodge.)

4. Larry Pressler (R-Humboldt) – Pressler was first elected to Congress in 1974, defeating Democratic incumbent Frank Denholm.  Pressler was an incredibly popular electoral figure, winning reelection in 1976 with 79.8% of the vote.  In 1978, Pressler easily won a U.S. Senate seat, and was reelected in 1984 and 1990. In 1996, Congressman Tim Johnson, himself an electoral powerhouse over five House terms, challenged Pressler.  It was a hard-fought campaign, but Pressler fell short, making him the only incumbent Republican senator to lose reelection that year.

Pressler made two failed attempts to return to electoral politics.  In 2002, Pressler was in a five-person field for the Republican nomination for U.S. House, finishing a distant second to outgoing Governor Bill Janklow.  In 2014, Pressler ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent, winning 17.1% and a respectable third-place finish as former Governor Mike Rounds won the open seat.

No biographies have been written about Pressler; however, Pressler himself wrote an excellent book of biographical sketches of South Dakota’s U.S. Senators, U.S. Senators from the Prairie, which I used as a reference for this blog post.

5. Tom Daschle (D-Aberdeen) – Daschle successfully ran for U.S. House in 1978, seeking the seat Pressler vacated to run for U.S. Senate.  In 1982, after South Dakota lost its second House seat, he defeated fellow incumbent Congressman Clint Roberts, a Republican Lyman County rancher.  In 1986, Daschle ran for the U.S. Senate, defeating Senator Abdnor, who had suffered a tough primary challenge from Gov. Bill Janklow.  In 1994, Daschle became the Senate Minority Leader.  He led the Democrats in the Senate for ten years, including two as Majority Leader.  In 2004, Daschle nearly ran for President, but instead sought a fourth Senate term.  Daschle’s position as a national Democratic leader made it difficult for him to maintain the support of the conservative South Dakota electorate, and after an expensive campaign, he lost to former Congressman John Thune 50.6% to 49.4%.

6. Tim Johnson (D-Vermillion) – The most recent three-term U.S. Senator from South Dakota is Tim Johnson.  After four terms in the legislature, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House in 1986, winning the seat being vacated by Tom Daschle, who was elected to the U.S. Senate.  After ten years in the U.S. House, he successfully challenged Senator Pressler in 1996.  Johnson was narrowly reelected in 2002, defeated Congressman Thune by only 527 votes.  Ironically, Johnson’s election victory sowed the seeds for Thune’s defeat of Senator Daschle two years later.  In late 2006, Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage that caused stroke-like symptoms, including difficulty with movement and speech.  Unlike Senator Mundt, however, Johnson was able to stage a recovery, and he won an easy reelection victory in 2008.

Johnson retired in 2014, declining to seek a fourth term and ending his career without an election loss.  Although he was often overshadowed by Daschle during his congressional career, Johnson is the most successful Democrat in South Dakota electoral history – 8-0 in statewide campaigns, winning an average of 61% of the vote.  In those eight elections, Johnson won a total of 1,553,967 votes – second all-time in South Dakota behind only Bernard Linn, who was elected Commissioner of School and Public Lands 11 times from 1948 to 1968.

2016 Election Preview: Will SD continue Republican streak?

This is the second of several posts previewing the Tuesday election through a historical lens.  The first part was an introduction.

The 2016 presidential election is the 32nd since South Dakota became a state in 1889.  In that time, South Dakota has cast its electors for the Republican nominee for president 28 times.  In only four elections has South Dakota supported the Democratic nominee, including one instance in 1896 when the Democrats and Populists ran a joint or “fusion” ticket.

Could 2016 be the fifth time that a Democrat carries South Dakota?

It seems unlikely.

According to the KELOLAND/Mason-Dixon poll, the Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence leads Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine 44% to 37%, with Libertarians Gary Johnson and William Weld winning 7%.  A more recent poll by Nielson Brothers, a local firm, indicates that Trump/Pence leads Clinton/Kaine 52% to 36%.

FiveThirtyEight, the renowned statistical forecasting site now under the auspices of ESPN, gives Mr. Trump a 95.4% chance of carrying South Dakota, and predicts a result of Trump 53.8%, Clinton 36.7%, and Johnson 7.9%.  (The FiveThirtyEight predictions are as of 2 PM on November 6; they fluctuate often.)

South Dakota has supported the Democratic nominee in four elections, each more than half a century ago:

  • In 1896, South Dakota narrowly supported Democrats William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska and Arthur Sewell of Maine.  Bryan was also the nominee of the Populist Party, and it was this nomination that carried him to victory in South Dakota.  That same year, South Dakota elected its only Populist governor, Andrew E. Lee and several other Populist officials.  The Bryan/Sewell ticket was defeated nationally by Republican Governor William McKinley of Ohio and Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey.
  • In both 1932 and 1936, South Dakota supported the Democratic ticket of Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York and John Nance Garner of Texas.  The depths of the Great Depression hit South Dakota particularly hard, as the state was already suffering from a farm crisis that was exacerbated by plummeting crop values after the stock market crash, as well as record-setting droughts and a grasshopper infestation.  The Roosevelt/Garner ticket defeated President Hoover and Vice President Curtis in 1932, and then rode the success of the New Deal program to a massive reelection victory in 1936 over Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon and newspaper publisher Frank Knox – the Landon/Knox ticket carried only Maine and Vermont.
  • Finally, in 1964, South Dakota supported the Democratic ticket of President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and U.S. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota.  Johnson had become president nearly a year earlier after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  He won a landslide victory over the conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, whom Johnson successfully portrayed as being too extreme to be elected.  South Dakota also certainly was swayed to support Johnson’s running mate, Senator Humphrey, who although representing Minnesota was a native of Doland, South Dakota and whose family operated Humphrey Drug in Huron, South Dakota.

To put the South Dakota contest in context, here is a list of each presidential election in South Dakota, ranked by the margin by which the Republican ticket won the state over the nearest runner-up:


(see notes regarding this chart at the end of the post)

On average, a winning Republican ticket in South Dakota has won 55.49% of the vote, and prevailed over the nearest opponent by 15.41%.  If the FiveThirtyEight prediction is correct, Trump/Pence will be just below the average vote share with 53.8%, but just above the average margin with 17.1%.  (The reason for the discrepancy is that the Libertarian Johnson/Weld ticket is presumably drawing votes from the Republican ticket.)

And, although the polling and predictions favor a Trump victory in South Dakota, it is worth noting that South Dakota, for a Republican state, has been relatively friendly to the Clintons.  In both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton lost the state by less than 4%.  In fact, Clinton’s final campaign stop in 1996 was in Brandon.  In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the South Dakota primary, even as the national momentum was with Barack Obama.  And this year, Secretary Clinton again won the primary, although it came after she had all but clinched the Democratic nomination.

Of course, the fact that South Dakota is unlikely to make history in the 2016 presidential election does not mean that the election itself will not be historic.  If Secretary Clinton is elected, she will of course be the first woman to serve as President, an important historical milestone.  Trump’s election would be without historical parallel – he would be the first president without experience as an elected or high-ranking military official.  Melania Trump would be the second foreign-born First Lady, following Louisa Adams (Mrs. John Quincy Adams), who was born in the United Kingdom.


Notes on the chart:

  • Third party tickets are only listed if they received at least 5% of the vote in South Dakota.  For that reason, many of the results listed do not total to 100%.
  • In 1912, the national election was a three-way contest between Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt running as a Progressive, and Democratic Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey.  In South Dakota, however, the Republican Party was controlled by pro-Roosevelt forces, who contrived to have the Progressive Roosevelt ticket nominated as the state’s official Republican ticket, therefore depriving Taft of a place on the ticket.  
  • In 1924, the Progressive LaFollette/Wheeler ticket finished ahead of the Democratic ticket of Davis/Bryan, and it is the Republican ticket’s margin over LaFollette that is reflected on the chart.  LaFollette only carried his home state of Wisconsin but ran strong in other midwestern states.
  • All South Dakota presidential election results are taken from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

2016 Election Preview, part I.

Every election sets the course of history.  At the national level, some presidential elections are more significant than others.  The election of Lincoln in 1860 or FDR in 1932 changed the course of U.S. History.  Other elections, though less dramatic, are no less pivotal.  Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign is not the topic of much historical discussion – but how different would America be today if Bob Dole had defeated him?

The same is true at the state level.  South Dakota has had its fair share of close, competitive general election that set the course of history – from the Populist Andrew E. Lee‘s narrow election as governor in 1896 to George McGovern‘s hard-fought defeat of Joe Bottum in 1962 and John Thune‘s successful challenge of Sen. Tom Daschle, at the time the Senate Minority Leader, in 2004.

The 2016 general election does not offer such compelling candidate matchups; however, it still offers opportunities for history to be made.  Over the next couple of days, a few blog posts will look at the potential “history” that could be made on Tuesday night.


Welcome to SoDak Governors

Why did I create this blog?

One of my hobbies over the past several years has been to study the history of South Dakota’s governors.  I’ve tried to collect as much information about them as I can, looking to published books and articles, unpublished manuscripts and documents, and conversations and questions with former governors, their families, and their staff members.  My involvement with state government and politics has given me the privilege of getting to know quite a few of them.

I also enjoy serving as a board member for the Trail of Governors project in Pierre, which is raising funds to erect life-size bronze statues of each former governor throughout the capital city.  I have helped to draft the short biographical sketches of each governor, which are used at the unveiling ceremonies and on the Trail’s website.  The Trail is a great way to encourage visitors to Pierre to not only visit our state’s capitol building and state memorials, but to learn a little bit about the state’s history.

A few years ago, Dr. Jon Lauck invited me to write an essay for publication in The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, Vol. 2.  Lauck, along with Drs. John Miller and Donald Simmons, have edited two excellent editions of these collections of essays on South Dakota’s political history, and a third is forthcoming from South Dakota Historical Society Press.  My article is entitled Leaders in the Land of Infinite Variety: A Collective Portrait of South Dakota’s Governors.  As I wrote in the introduction to that essay:

Since statehood, thirty-one men have served South Dakota’s governor.  Their personal biographies reflect the history of the state, even as their political careers directed it.  A few left an indelible mark on South Dakota.  Others are nearly forgotten by history.  Taken together, the stories of South Dakota’s thirty-one governors create a cumulative portrait of the state’s first 125 years.  The Plains Political Tradition:  Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, Vol. 2, p. 242.

A few months ago, I created a Twitter account, @SoDakGovs.  My goal for that account is to share some of the history I have learned, to retweet interesting historical tidbits tweeted by others, and to promote awareness of the Trail of Governors project.

That is also the goal of this blog.  I would like to have an online platform where I can post information about South Dakota history that exceeds 140 characters.  As I wrote in my essay, we can learn a great deal about South Dakota history through the study of our governors.  I will also branch out from that focus to post information of general historical interest.