This year marks a century since women in South Dakota earned the right to vote, so it was fitting that the two most successful female politicians in South Dakota history were both visible on Tuesday.
However, they were in very different places, literally and figuratively.
Both Gov.-elect Kristi Noem and Augustana University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin were in Sioux Falls, but that’s about all they had in common. Noem, wrapping up four terms as South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was celebrating her victory with Republicans at the Hilton Garden Inn, as the GOP once again won all eight statewide races.
Herseth Sandlin, who served six and a half years in Congress, was a guest at the Democratic Party’s gathering at The District, a concert venue at the Empire Mall. She arrived, along with her husband, former Texas Congressman Max Sandlin, when hopes were still high for a Democratic resurgence, as Democrats thought state Sen. Billie Sutton might defeat Noem.
But Herseth Sandlin and Max Sandlin were gone by the time Sutton took the stage after midnight to concede. He had come close, but Noem won, thanks to running competitive races in East River, especially in Minnehaha County, and relying on expected big margins in West River.
Noem had to wait longer than she is used to, but the results were what she has always seen: A victory.
“I feel relieved,” Noem told The Associated Press after being told the race was being called in her favor. “We worked hard and shared my vision for the state, and I’m just very grateful that the people of South Dakota put their trust in me to be their next governor.”
Noem turns 47 on Nov. 30, and three days later, Herseth Sandlin will turn 48. Their careers were intertwined by the 2010 election as well as their gender. No other woman in state history has won an election to a full term in Congress, although a pair of Republicans served briefly in the Senate.
Gladys Pyle, a former legislator and secretary of state who ran for governor in 1930, losing in a close GOP primary, won a strange special election after the death of the legendary Peter Norbeck in 1938. It was held at the same time voters chose Chan Gurney for the full six-year term starting in 1939. Pyle served two months, although Congress was not in session and she never cast a vote.
Vera Bushfield was in the Senate for less than three months after her husband Harlan Bushfield died in 1948 and she was appointed to fill out his term. She resigned in late December, allowing Rep. Karl Mundt, who won the 1948 election for the Senate seat, to be appointed a few days early, gaining a valuable edge in seniority.
Mundt worked in Bryant as a teacher, debate coach and superintendent from 1923-27. In the 1970s, Bryant was absorbed into the Hamlin School District, which is the high school Noem graduated from in 1990, a year in which she also served as South Dakota’s Snow Queen.
Now the queen as has become governor. If she is re-elected in 2022, and that’s the way to bet, since the Republicans have won every governor’s race since 1978, she will have an undefeated string of electoral success that few South Dakota politicians can match.
Noem won both her races for the Legislature in 2006 and 2008, emerged from a crowded field to win the Republican nomination for Congress in 2010, unseated Herseth Sandlin and easily won three more terms. In June, she faced down Attorney General Marty Jackley for the GOP gubernatorial nomination and became the state’s first female governor on Nov. 6.
Noem stands as a remarkably historic figure in South Dakota. Herseth Sandlin, once mentioned as a possible senator or governor whom some said had potential for a national race, says politics is in her past and she is content at Augie.
It would be an incredible story if Herseth Sandlin left academia behind and returned to politics to run for governor, an office her grandfather Ralph held from 1959-60 and one her father Lars, a longtime legislator, almost claimed in 1986, losing a close race to George S. Mickelson.
That was the last time before this year that the Democrats almost captured the statehouse. Sutton, just 34, has a long future ahead of him and may yet lead the Democrats back to the winner’s circle; he may be Sen. Mike Rounds’ opponent in 2020. Sutton, the Beto O’Rourke of South Dakota — both emerging celebrity politicians who lost a close race in 2018 — needs some other Democrats to run competitive races as well, and Herseth Sandlin is still a force to be reckoned with in South Dakota.
But that’s mere conjecture. Noem, who has become famed for her horseback-riding, cap-wearing, gun-shooting ways more than her legislative accomplishments, is the story now. That’s why she was in the spotlight Tuesday, and Herseth Sandlin vanished quietly into the night.
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