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Seeing Red: A Brief History of Republican Domination in South Dakota

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Republicans are eying to control all partisan statewide elected offices in the Mount Rushmore State for the first time since 1962

southdakotaseal10.pngSince 2011, U.S. Senator Tim Johnson has been the lone Democrat holding partisan statewide office in South Dakota.

Johnson announced his retirement this week, and his party would seem to start in the hole with former Governor Mike Rounds already campaigning for the seat.

Though times may be bleak for Democrats in the Mount Rushmore State, things have been worse.

In fact, aside from a six-year span in the 1930s, the last 50 years have actually been the heyday for the party in South Dakota, when viewed against their struggles over the last century-plus.

However, the tide has turned again in recent years with Republicans winning all eight statewide races in 2010 and three in 2012 to put themselves in a position - with Johnson's Senate seat now open - to run the table again so that the Democrats would not hold a single partisan statewide office for the first time since 1962.

Overall, during the last 124 years since statehood, Republicans have won 437 of the 525 elections for partisan statewide office, or 83.2 percent.

Democrats have won 83, or 15.8 percent of these contests, with third parties capturing five wins (1 percent).

In the Beginning...

Democrats did not win their first partisan statewide race in South Dakota until a quarter-century after statehood in 1914.

That year Edwin Johnson narrowly won the state's first direct election for U.S. Senator - beating Charles Burke by 3.9 points in a five-candidate race.

The Republican hold on the state was not absolute during the previous 25 years, however, as third party candidates were elected to various offices during the 1890s (garnering Democratic support with no Democrats on the ballot per se): for Governor (People's, 1896; Fusion 1898), Attorney General (People's, 1896), and the U.S. House (People's, 1896 to the state's two at-large seats).

Populists and a Silver Republican were also elected to the U.S. Senate during this decade.

After Republicans won back Senator Johnson's seat in 1920, the GOP once again cleaned up across the board in partisan statewide races, winning 29 in a row over three cycles until Democrat William Bulow won the 1926 gubernatorial race over Republican incumbent Carl Gunderson in a rematch from the previous cycle's race.

Bulow won reelection in 1928, during which the GOP swept the remaining statewide contests, and then appointed a Democrat to the Lieutenant Governor's office (John Grigsby) after the death of Clarence Coyne in 1929.

Bulow then ousted Republican incumbent William McMaster in the 1930 U.S. Senate race that preceded a slew of Democratic victories in the 1932, 1934, and 1936 cycles - mirroring the political tsunami that was taking place across the country.

Democrats won 18 of 19 statewide races in South Dakota in 1932 and 1934 with the only blemish being the 1932 U.S. Senate race won by two-term GOP incumbent Peter Norbeck.

In 1936, Democrats won the elections for South Dakota Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Attorney General, Commissioner of School and Public Lands, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and U.S. Senate, but lost races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Railroad Commissioner.

After Bulow lost the 1942 U.S. Senate primary to former Governor Tom Berry - who then lost the seat for the Democrats in November's general election - Democrats were without a partisan statewide officeholder in 1943.

(The Superintendent of Public Instruction was a non-partisan office at this time, although still held by previously partisan-elected Democrat J.F. Hines).

Over the next seven cycles through the Election of 1956, Republicans won all 61 partisan statewide electoral contests.

Democrats rebounded with five victories in 1958 (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Attorney General) - a wave election year for the party nationwide - but the only contests won by the party over the next five cycles from 1960 through 1968 were George McGovern's two U.S. Senate wins in 1962 and 1968.

Modern Times

From 1970 through 2008, Democrats were able to land 47 statewide victories during these 38 years - hardly impressive, but much better than the mere 36 they won during the previous 81 years dating back to statehood:

· Public Utilities Commissioner: 12 cycles (1970, 1972, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2006).

· U.S. House (at-large): 11 (1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2004 (special), 2004, 2006, 2008).

· U.S. Senate: 8 (1972, 1974, 1986, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2008).

· Commissioner of School and Public Lands: 6 (1972, 1974, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002).

· Governor: 3 (1970, 1972, 1974).

· Lieutenant Governor: 2 (1970, 1972).

· Treasurer: 2 (1994, 1998).

· Secretary of State: 2 (1972, 1974).

· Attorney General: 1 (1972).

The longest current Democratic drought in South Dakota is for the office of State Auditor, for which the party has been shut out since 1958 when Harriet Horning was victorious in one of only four wins for the party in state history for that office.

South Dakota Partisan Statewide Elected Office Since Statehood

Office
Years
GOP
DEM
3rd
Total
% GOP
Commissioner of Labor Statistics
1890-1894
3
0
0
3
100.0
Auditor
1889-present
49
4
0
53
92.5
Treasurer
1889-present
48
5
0
53
90.6
Secretary of State
1889-present
47
6
0
53
88.7
Attorney General
1889-present
47
5
1
53
88.7
Lieutenant Governor*
1889-1972
38
5
0
43
88.4
Superintendent of Public Instruction**
1889-1936
22
3
0
25
88.0
Commissioner of School & Public Lands
1889-present
44
9
0
53
83.0
Governor
1889-present
43
8
2
53
81.1
Public Utilities Commissioner***
1898-present
46
14
0
60
76.7
US House (At-large)
1889-present
30
11
2
43
69.8
US Senate
1914-present
20
13
0
33
60.6
Total
437
83
5
525
83.2
* Lieutenant Governor tied to Governor starting in 1974. ** Superintendent of Public Instruction nonpartisan office since 1938. *** Formerly Commissioner of Railroads (Three officials are elected to the commission, usually staggered). Data compiled by Smart Politics with election results provided by the office of the South Dakota Secretary of State.

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Remains of the Data

Who Has Won the Most Votes in US Senate Electoral History?

Only three of the Top 10 and nine of the Top 50 vote-getters of all time are currently serving in the chamber.

Political Crumbs

Six for Thirteen

Collin Peterson remarked last month that he is leaning to run for reelection to Minnesota's 7th Congressional District in 2016. If he does and is victorious, he will creep even closer to the top of the list of the longest-serving U.S. Representatives in Minnesota history. The DFL congressman is only the sixth Minnesotan to win at least 13 terms to the U.S. House of the 135 elected to the chamber in state history. Peterson trails 18-term DFLer Jim Oberstar (1975-2011), 16-term Republicans Harold Knutson (1917-1949) and August Andresen (1925-1933; 1935-1958), and 14-term DFLers Martin Sabo (1979-2007) and John Blatnik (1947-1974). Andresen died in office, Sabo and Blatnik retired, and Knutson and Oberstar were defeated at the ballot box in 1948 and 2010 respectively. At 70 years, 7 months, 11 days through Monday, Peterson is currently the ninth oldest Gopher State U.S. Representative in history. DFLer Rick Nolan of the 8th CD is the seventh oldest at 71 years, 1 month, 23 days.


Seeing Red

Congressman Nick Rahall's failed bid for a 20th term in West Virginia this cycle, combined with a narrow loss by Nick Casey to Alex Mooney in Shelley Moore Capito's open seat, means that West Virginia Democrats will be shut out of the state's U.S. House delegation for the first time in over 90 years. The Republican sweep by two-term incumbent David McKinley in the 1st CD, Mooney in the 2nd, and Evan Jenkins over Rahall in the 3rd marks the first time the GOP has held all seats in the chamber from West Virginia since the Election of 1920. During the 67th Congress (1921-1923) all six seats from the state were controlled by the GOP. Since the Election of 1922, Democrats have won 76 percent of all U.S. House elections in the Mountain State - capturing 172 seats compared to 54 for the GOP.


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