Yet, over the years, several books have been written about South Dakota’s governors. This post is an attempt to create a comprehensive list of those biographies. Not included are shorter articles or biographical sketches, general histories of the state, or books that compile sketches of every governor (such as Lynwood Oyos’ Over a Century of Leadership, or this blogger’s own humble efforts).
One clear takeaway from this list is that there is room for more work in this area. Many South Dakota governors would be good subjects. Of particular urgency are biographies of Richard F. Kneip and William J. Janklow, both major figures for whom first-hand sources are still living.
(If a reader is aware of a biography that has been overlooked, please let me know on this blog’s contact page.)
Peter Norbeck and George Norbeck, The Norbecks of South Dakota (1938). (This is a history of Norbeck’s ancestors, written by Gov. Norbeck and his brother, although it also includes some information about Gov. Norbeck’s early life.)
Lydia Norbeck and Nancy Tystad Koupal (ed.), “Recollections of the Years,” South Dakota Department of History Report and Historical Collections, Vol. XXXIX, pp. 1-147 (State Publishing Co., 1979). (As with the Crawford biography above, this was technically an article in the SD State Historical Society’s annual journal, but at 147 pages is comparable in length to the books on this list. Nancy Tystad Koupal of SDSHS edited Mrs. Norbeck’s recollections and added some explanatory materials.)
Walter Simmons, Joe Foss: Flying Marine (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1943). (This book was first published during World War II, before Foss’ political career, and therefore focuses entirely on his war record.)
Monday’s special session will be the 26th in South Dakota history, each of which was called by the governor at the time. (Although a 1990 constitutional amendment created a process whereby the legislature can call itself into session, this mechanism has never been used. As a practical matter, it is much easier for the governor to call the session, meaning that the legislative mechanism would only be used if a governor refused to cooperate.)
Prior to 1963, the State Legislature only met every other year, in the odd-numbered years following a general election. Particularly during the activist Progressive era, this led to a few special “general sessions” – sessions called in the off-year to handle numerous legislative topics.
Here is a list of the past special sessions, with a brief description of the topics covered:
October 15-17, 1889 – Just days prior to South Dakota statehood on November 2, 1889, the first State Legislature met in special session to organize and elect officers.
February 8-11, 1916 – Gov. Frank Byrne called a special session to pass an amended primary election law, and to propose a constitutional amendment relating to state rural credit loans, a state coal mine, and state road construction.
March 18-23, 1918 – Gov. Peter Norbeck called a general session amidst U.S. entry into World War I. Legislators ratified the federal 18th Amendment enacting the prohibition of alcohol, provided for women’s suffrage and for voting by soldiers deployed overseas, abolished the right of resident aliens to vote in state elections, banned the teaching of foreign languages in public schools (an anti-German measure), and passed a constitutional amendment to fix defects in previous state-owned enterprise amendments.
December 2-4, 1919 – Gov. Norbeck called a special session to ratify the federal 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women’s suffrage.
June 21, 1920 – Gov. Norbeck called another general session to increase state spending and consider his proposals for state-owned enterprises.
June 22 – July 1, 1927 – Gov. W. J. Bulow, a Democrat, had vetoed the Republican legislature’s budget, which he believed overspent and was not properly balanced. The State Legislature failed to pass a budget before it adjourned, and challenged Bulow’s right to veto the General Appropriations Act. After the Supreme Court upheld Bulow’s veto, he called the legislature back into session to pass a state budget, successfully insisting on spending cuts.
July 31 – August 5, 1933 – With the federal repeal of the prohibition of alcohol, Gov. Tom Berry called a special session to legalize 3.2 beer and to tax its sale as a new revenue source during the depths of the Great Depression.
December 21-24, 1936 – Gov. Berry, a lame duck who had been defeated by Leslie Jensen in the November 1936 general election, called a special session to enact state legislation related to the implementation of the federal Social Security Act.
The session was overshadowed by U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck’s death on December 20, and by speculation about how Berry would fill Norbeck’s seat. Berry was widely known to have ambitions to serve in the U.S. Senate himself, and hoped to resign as Governor so that Lt. Governor Robert Peterson could succeed Berry as Governor and then appoint Berry to the Senate. The plan was derailed, however, when Peterson was arrested for embezzling from his Centerville bank. Instead, Berry appointed Herbert Hitchcock, a 69-year old former state senator, with the understanding that Hitchcock would step aside in Berry’s favor at the next election. Hitchcock ran for reelection in 1938, however, and Berry had to run in the Democratic primary against his own appointee. Although Berry defeated Hitchcock, he lost the general election to Yankton businessman Chan Gurney, a Republican.
June 10-12, 1944 – Gov. M. Q. Sharpe called a special session to enact legislation allowed deployed soldiers to vote in the 1944 election.
February 6-16, 1950 – Gov. George T. Mickelson called a special session to create public power districts and to authorize additional funds for highway construction.
May 18, 1981 – After 31 years with out a special session, Gov. Bill Janklow called three. The first authorized a state subsidy for the first year of operations of the new state-owned rail lines.
September 23-24, 1981 – Gov. Janklow called a special session to approve his plan to sell Missouri River water to Energy Transportation Systems Inc. (ETSI), to be used in a coal slurry pipeline from Wyoming. The pipeline was ultimately never built, but the state received over $5 million in payments before it was canceled.
May 2-3, 1984 – Gov. Janklow called a special session to abolish the state’s nine water conservancy subdistricts and replace them with six water development districts. The State Legislature had rejected a similar plan during the 1984 legislative session, but adopted the plan in the special session.
July 16, 1987 – Gov. George S. Mickelson called a special session to finalize South Dakota’s bid to host the Superconducting Super Collider, a massive proposed particle accelerator complex. The project was ultimately awarded to Texas but was cancelled in 1993.
October 3, 1991 – Gov. Mickelson called a special session to allow the state legislature to pass a redistricting plan in response to the 1990 census. This was the first time that a special session was called to pass a redistricting plan.
November 26, 1991 – After a few errors were discovered in the redistricting plan passed by the October 3 special session, Gov. Mickelson called a brief special session in conjunction with the Governor’s Budget Address to fix the errors.
May 25, 1993 – Gov. Walter Dale Miller called a special session in the wake of the death of Gov. Mickelson in the state plane crash. The State Legislature unanimously confirmed Miller’s appointment of Sioux Falls businessman Steve Kirby as lieutenant governor and appropriated funds for a new state airplane and for construction of the Fighting Stallions Memorial. Miler also used the special session to request funds for prison security in the wake of a riot at the state penetentiary.
July 11-12, 1994 – In response to a Supreme Court ruling that held video lottery to be unconstitutional, Gov. Miller called a special session to place a constitutional amendment on the 1994 general election ballot authorizing video lottery.
September 9, 1994 – Gov. Miller called another special session to authorize budget cuts and the use of reserve funds, due to the loss of video lottery revenue. Legislators rejected a proposal from Miller for a temporary one-cent sales tax to help address the shortfall.
The budget adjustments had not been made at the July special session because a pending appeal sought to allow video lottery until the election, but by September the Supreme Court had rejected that appeal.
April 14, 1997 – Gov. Janklow called a special session to impose a temporary gasoline tax to fund emergency road repairs as a consequence of massive flooding in northeastern South Dakota.
December 28-29, 2000 – Gov. Janklow called a special session to authorize the sale of the state cement plant and to create a trust fund with the proceeds of the sale.
October 23-24, 2001 – Gov. Janklow called a special session to allow for legislative redistricting.
June 26-27, 2003 – Gov. Mike Rounds called a special session to create a health insurance high risk pool. The risk pool replaced an earlier system called “guaranteed issue,” whereby health insurance companies were each required to accept a share of high-risk insureds. Several health insurance providers had left the South Dakota market rather than continue to accept high-risk insureds, and the new risk pool was allowed more health insurers to operate in South Dakota.
October 14, 2005 – Gov. Rounds called a special session to appropriate $19 million to the Science and Technology Authority for construction of a laboratory facility at the former Homestake Mine in Lead.
October 24, 2011 – Gov. Dennis Daugaard called a special session to allow for legislative redistricting.
June 12, 2017 – Gov. Daugaard has called a special session in order to consider recommendations from an interim legislative committee on the authorization of recreational uses of non-meandered waters. The longstanding issue gained urgency after a Supreme Court opinion prohibited state game, fish, and parks officials from facilitating access to these waters.
Daugaard had in fact called another special session, to be held on June 22, 2013, to appropriate $10 million to complete construction of a new veterans’ home in Hot Springs. The special session was canceled after the federal Veterans Administration gave the state more time to use federal funding, which allowed for the project design to be modified in a way that reduced costs. This is the only time that a special session has been called, but canceled before it was held.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Senator 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.
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.
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.