GovernorMike Rounds (R)
SenatorsTim Johnson (D)
John Thune (R)
RepresentativeRep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D)
One of the last great stretches of the American Wild West was the southern part of the Dakota Territory, admitted to the Union in 1889 as the state of South Dakota. For years, this land had been the home of the Oglala Sioux, one of the largest Native American tribes, who had built a buffalo hunting civilization by becoming masters of the horses the Spaniards had imported to North America 350 years earlier. It was the Sioux warrior chief Sitting Bull, buried on a bluff above the Missouri River, who destroyed Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876. Just a few years later, many of the remaining Oglala Sioux Indians in South Dakota were massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890. After half a century of disease and a decade of defeat fighting the westward advance of white settlement, the Sioux were a traumatized people, and still are today, living on reservations with proud traditions but in terrible poverty. Isolated from the mainstream economic marketplace, they are beset by high rates of crime, alcoholism and suicide, with life expectancy and disease rates akin to those of sub-Saharan Africa. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in Shannon County, unemployment is a staggering 85% and incomes average $3,700 a year. Incremental progress has been made over the years, at least in preserving the vestiges of the Sioux culture and staunching some of the decline in standards of living. Infant mortality has been reduced and the American Indian population has been growing rapidly. In 2007, the state added to school curricula units on the language and culture of the Lakota and other Indians. In 2004, 98 buffalo were rounded up on California’s Catalina Island, the descendants of animals brought there to film a Western in the 1920s, and returned to the Lakota Reservation. Indians account for 8% of the population in South Dakota, more than in any other state except New Mexico and Alaska.
Once the Sioux were subdued and forced to surrender their territory, white settlement of South Dakota came fast, fueled by the gold strikes in the Black Hills beginning in 1876. Soon, the mountains swarmed with settlers. Deadwood became a city of 20,000 where Calamity Jane ruled the saloons and Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while holding two pair—aces and eights. Ranchers, knowing that the buffalo could not be contained by barbed wire fences, massacred them so thoroughly that when Teddy Roosevelt got to the Dakota Territory in 1884, he had a hard time finding one to shoot. It was not long before the railroad came through, and then permanent settlers, many of them German and Scandinavian immigrants recruited by the railroads. They built sodhouses, broke the land and set down roots.
Demographically, South Dakota has never entirely filled up. In the 25 years between statehood and World War I, the eastern third of the state, sectioned off Midwestern style into 640-acre square miles, was settled by farmers. But moving westward, before a traveler reaches the Missouri River in the middle of the state, green turns to brown, cultivation grows sparse and then stops. The West River plains are open grazing land, scarcely touched by the white men who were so eager to establish dominion over them a century ago. The land is punctuated, not by roads meeting every mile at precise angles, but by buttes, gullies and grasslands sweeping to the horizon with no sign of human habitation except the occasional missile silos that once pointed toward the Soviet Union. Far in the west, in Butte County, is the Geographic Center of the United States, designated as such after Alaska was admitted to the Union.
South Dakota’s political patterns were fairly well set by the early 1900s. Its early settlers were mostly Midwesterners who brought their Republicanism with them. Voters here never had much use for the Non-Partisan League, which caught on in North Dakota, and there was never anything here comparable to the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. But the nature of the farm economy—its dependence on the great railroads and milling companies, and on the vagaries of international markets—meant that South Dakota was subject to periodic farm revolts. It voted for Populists and William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s. It supported the early New Deal, and it revolted against the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s by electing a young Democratic congressman named George McGovern, then a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. South Dakota shared the isolationist impulse of much of the Great Plains. McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s was not a liability here. In the mid-1970s, Democrats seemed on the verge of becoming the majority party.
Then South Dakota moved sharply to the Republicans, beginning with the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Janklow, elected in 1978 and 1982 and then again in 1994 and 1998. In 1979, Sioux Falls banker Thomas Reardon suggested that the state get rid of its usury law limiting interest rates; inflation was driving market rates over the usury limits and choking off credit to consumers. Janklow and the Legislature repealed the usury laws and in 1981 passed laws enabling Citibank to move its credit card operations to Sioux Falls, where it could charge market interest rates—all in a state with no corporate or personal income taxes, and a community with a literate low-wage work force. The Citibank operation here has grown from 50 employees to 3,200, servicing some 118 million cardholders, replacing the meatpacker John Morrell as the biggest employer. Other banks and telemarketing followed. More than 15,000 people in the Sioux Falls area work in financial services.
All this has made South Dakota an unusually productive place economically. The state leads the nation in the percentage of young children in two-income families and has the highest rate of employed seniors—a third of people age 65 to 74 are working. It ranks high in credit ratings, low in foreclosures, and high in repaying college loans. Even as some big employers disappeared—Gateway Computer moved to San Diego, IBP was bought by Tyson Foods, NorthWestern Energy went bankrupt—other jobs have been created, and the National Science Foundation picked the Homestake gold mine in the Black Hills as the site of a new physics lab. As the recession hit in 2007 and 2008, South Dakota was the only Midwestern state with population growth that exceeded the national average. It has relatively low wages, but also some of the nation’s lowest unemployment and housing prices. Its residents and those in North Dakota spend less time commuting to work than Americans elsewhere. It leads the nation in percentage of home-based businesses. Some meatpacking plants have closed, but others are manned now by a largely Hispanic work force, recruited from the Southwest and beyond. Some 40 languages are spoken on the floor of the John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls.
South Dakota has long been thought of as a farm state, but farm counties have been losing population. In the 1990 census, 11% of the workforce was employed in farming, forestry or fishing, but by 2000, that figure had dropped to 8%. Ranching is also important, and there is still some mining here, but it is tapering off. One reason is increased productivity. South Dakota in 2008 had half as many dairy cows as it did in 1970 but produced more milk. As local meatpacking plants have closed, the state has promoted the production of luxury beef, with computer tracking of each cow to guarantee its provenance and freedom from disease. Wide open spaces leave room for initiatives like the attempt by American Sign Language advocates to set up a town for the deaf in McCook County. Economically and demographically, South Dakota is coming to resemble the Rocky Mountain states, with most people concentrated around a few prosperous and growing cities and towns, while vast acreage remains vacant, punctuated with infrequent ranches and resort areas. Lincoln County, just south of Sioux Falls, was the nation’s seventh fastest-growing county from 2000 to 2008, and in 2008, Sioux Falls’s Minnehaha County and Lincoln County together had 27% of the state’s population. Politically, this growth has been a standoff between the parties. Democrats have benefited from growth and increased turnout on the reservations, while Republicans have benefited from growth in the Black Hills and the two parties have slugged it out in the Sioux Falls area.
In recent years, South Dakota has been the scene of heated partisan fights. Briefly, from June 2004 to January 2005, it had an all-Democratic congressional delegation—Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and Representative-at-Large Stephanie Herseth Sandlin—for only the second time in its history. (The other time was a period of five days in 1936-37.) Johnson held his seat in 2002 against a challenge by then Republican Rep. John Thune as a big turnout drive on the Pine Ridge Reservation enabled him to win by 524 votes. But in 2004, Thune came back and beat Daschle, then the Senate minority leader, by 4,508 votes. Herseth won the state’s single House seat in a special election after Janklow resigned and has held it ever since. This is a state where voters traditionally have expected to meet and talk with their representatives in Congress, which has made Democrats more competitive in these races than they have been in presidential or state politics. Republicans have held the governorship since 1978 and have had wide margins in the state Legislature.
South Dakota also has been a major battleground in the abortion rights fight in recent years. The Legislature in February 2006 passed a law criminalizing abortion and providing no exceptions for rape and incest, the nation’s most stringent abortion law. Republican Gov. Mike Rounds signed the bill, calling it a “full frontal attack” on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions. Ironically, anti-abortion advocates outside the state criticized the South Dakotans for fashioning a test case of Roe when it seemed obvious that the votes were lacking on the Supreme Court to overturn it. But the strongest opposition came from inside the state. Petitions began circulating to put the bill on the ballot in November. Democrats suddenly found they had many more legislative candidates than in previous years, and some Republicans opposed the bill as too restrictive and confrontational. It became an issue in Oglala Sioux politics as well. Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman elected tribal president, called for setting up an abortion clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and was impeached and ousted from office in July 2006. Opponents of the abortion ban fared better. South Dakotans voted 56%-44% to repeal the law. The Legislature responded by passing a more restrained bill, banning abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life and health of the mother. Abortion-rights supporters again put the issue on the ballot and voters repealed it 55%-45% in November 2008. These results must be counted as a major defeat for those who want to recriminalize abortion in the United States. Even in this culturally conservative state, people are against outlawing abortion. Still, the number of abortions in the state has been declining, and in June 2008, a federal appeals court upheld the state law requiring doctors to tell women that abortion ends a human life.
The abortion issue did not totally overturn the political order here. Rounds was re-elected 62%-36%, and voters did pass, though by a narrow margin, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the establishment of domestic partnerships or civil unions. Democrats gained a few seats in the Legislature, but were far short of the majority. The trend held in 2008. Democrats made small gains in the House and lost one seat in the Senate. Members of the state’s congressional delegation are popular. Democratic Sen. Johnson, after suffering a stroke in December 2006, made a slow but determined recovery and was re-elected by a wide margin in 2008. Republican Sen. Thune seemed headed to a similar victory in 2010, and Rep. Herseth Sandlin seemed sure of re-election unless she runs for the office her grandfather held in 1959-61, the governorship.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
South Dakota has voted Democratic for president just four times since statehood, in 1896, 1932, 1936 and 1964. But it was fairly close in five of the seven elections between 1972, when South Dakota’s George McGovern was the Democratic nominee, and 1996, when Bill Clinton came within 3% of winning. In 2000, the environmental policies of Democratic nominee Al Gore were unpopular here, and Republican George W. Bush carried the state 60%-38%. Gore carried only Indians, a rising but small percentage of the electorate, and ran even among the elderly, but the percentage of voters who became Democrats during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time was on the wane. In 2004, Bush once again carried the state 60%-38%, winning every county except those containing Indian reservations, where Democratic registration drives in 2002 and 2004 vastly increased turnout, and the University of South Dakota. In 2008, with no contest generating the interest that the Tom Daschle-John Thune Senate race had four years earlier, turnout was down 2%, contrary to the national trend. GOP nominee John McCain carried the state by just 53%-45%. Democrat Barack Obama won the Indian reservations plus several counties in the northeast and southeast, and he won Sioux Falls’ Minnehaha County by 587 votes out of 80,000 cast.
In 1988, South Dakota switched its presidential primary from the traditional June date to February, just one week after New Hampshire. It proved to be a booster of Great Plains candidates who did not fare well elsewhere: Republican Bob Dole of Kansas in 1988 and 1996, Democrat Dick Gephardt of Missouri in 1988, Democrats Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa in 1992. But in 1996, it attracted few candidates, and the South Dakota Legislature decided to save $400,000 in election costs by reverting to a June primary. In January 2007, a move to hold the 2008 primary on February 5 was blocked by a 35-35 vote in the state House. As it turned out, there was a robust race for the Democratic nomination up through June 3, when South Dakota and Montana voted. Obama had long since won the endorsements of leading South Dakota Democrats—Johnson and former Senators Daschle and George McGovern. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin switched to Obama after her initial preference, John Edwards, dropped out. But Obama campaigned only briefly in South Dakota, while Hillary Rodham Clinton and husband Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton crisscrossed the state in the two weeks before the primary. It paid off. Clinton won 55%-45%. She ran especially strong in the eastern counties and lost on the Indian reservations. It was her only victory north of the 42nd parallel and west of Indiana and Michigan, and raised the question of whether she might have won the nomination if more states in the region had held primaries rather than the caucuses in which the better-organized Obama campaign prevailed.