OPINION — Gov. Kristi Noem is being promoted as a possible Republican candidate in 2024.
If she runs — she has said she won’t, but politicians have been known to change their plans or not to tell exactly what is on their mind — she wouldn’t be the first South Dakotan to eye the White House.
There have been six politicians born in our state who saw themselves as the commander in chief. None won, and just two were nominated.
Sen. Karl Mundt pondered a run in 1952. Once General Dwight Eisenhower revealed he was a Republican and was interested in running for president — he had kept his political beliefs private — Mundt backed away.
Instead, he became a friend and advisor to a young California senator named Richard Nixon, who was named Ike’s running mate. The two remained close for two decades, with President Nixon coming to Madison in 1969 to dedicate a museum in Mundt’s honor at General Beadle State College, now Dakota State University.
George McGovern was bitten by the presidential bug in 1962 as he recovered from a hepatitis attack during the closing days of his second run for the Senate; he had lost to Mundt in a bitter race in 1960.
While Eleanor McGovern campaigned across the state for her ailing husband, he read Theodore H. White’s new bestseller, “The Making of the President 1960” and started thinking he could become president.
In 1968, after his friend Sen. Bobby Kennedy of New York was assassinated, McGovern agreed to stand in as his replacement at the Democratic National Convention. He finished a distant third in the nomination fight behind a pair of friends and liberal allies, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a South Dakota native who represented Minnesota in the Senate before and after he was VP, and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a poetic and puzzling Minnesotan.
But McGovern had Potomac Fever and never lost it. He was the first Democrat to jump in the race for the 1972 nomination, starting with virtually no national base.
But an inspired primary campaign delivered him the nomination and he faced Nixon, a recurring figure in American politics for three decades. After his brilliant run to the nomination, McGovern made one error after another and lost in a landslide.
It is a bitter irony to South Dakota Democrats that two liberal icons from our state, Humphrey and McGovern, could not carry South Dakota when they were on the ballot as presidential candidates. Both lost to Nixon.
After the 1972 debacle, McGovern became something of a figure of ridicule, labeled a loony lefty out of step with the nation he wanted to lead. While he was able to win a third Senate term in 1974, he was soundly defeated by Rep. James Abdnor in 1980 when he sought a fourth term.
McGovern later admitted he was not totally committed to the Senate after 1972. He still lusted for the White House, and he mounted a long-shot race in 1984, surprising observers with a good showing in the Iowa Caucuses before his underfunded campaign came to a stop.
It seemed that was the end of his presidential hopes.
But he wasn’t quite done yet. He eyed one more run in 1992, and found an unlikely advisor. While on a plane before the campaign heated up, McGovern spotted Nixon — who else! — and the old rivals, one a liberal Democrat, the other a moderate conservative Republican, both World War II veterans with plenty of political battle scars between them, sat together.
McGovern told me he asked Nixon if he should run.
“Well, George,” Nixon intoned, “Do you have something to say that no one else is saying?”
McGovern pondered it and decided his day was past, in part because family and friends urged him not to try. Three decades after he began his White House quest, he finally set it aside.
Larry Pressler was in his first year as a senator in 1979 when he announced he was considering running for the GOP nomination in 1980.
Pressler was just 37, while frontrunner Ronald Reagan was in his late 60s. Pressler said the party should consider someone in the prime of their life, not in the twilight.
But his candidacy was ridiculed, he found little support and dropped out before a single vote was cast in the nomination process. He remained in the Senate until 1997 but never again mounted a presidential run.
Sen. Tom Daschle also eyed the presidency, taking a look in both 2004 and 2008. In fact, veteran Argus Leader political reporter David Kranz, a great journalist and a friend whom I admired and respected, wrote a Page 1 story in 2003 announcing Daschle was running.
Kranz and Daschle had been friends at SDSU in the late 1960s, even holding a mock convention in 1968. Dave remained an admirer even as he covered Daschle, which was not a wise decision on his part.
He let his emotion get in the way of his news judgment and got the story published. But Daschle was still undecided and on the day the paper hit the street, he announced he was not running.
Dave always insisted the story was right for a few hours before Daschle changed his mind when he awoke the next day. Maybe it was.
Instead of challenging President George W. Bush in 2004, Daschle sought a fourth term in the Senate.He lost in an extremely expensive and high-profile race to former congressman John Thune, who is now in his third term and stands an excellent chance of becoming the first South Dakota senator since Mundt to be elected to four terms.
Even after losing his Senate seat, Daschle considered a run for the White House in 2008. It was an open race, with no incumbent, but he decided to retire as a political candidate.
Instead, he endorsed and assisted Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who won with the help of several of Daschle’s former aides. Many served in his administration, and Daschle almost did.
He was nominated to be secretary of Health and Human Services but when news erupted that he had failed to pay $128,000 in taxes previous three years, he was forced to withdraw.
Daschle still counseled Obama and made his views known in private meetings with the president. But he may have gotten a lot more done if he was in charge of HHS and using his political skills and decades of connections on Capitol Hill as the new president tried to get his health-care package approved.
Thune was looked on as a potential 2012 presidential candidate and he told me and other reporters he was considering it.
“I’m taking a very full look at it,” he told Politico in 2010.
But he decided he could not raise the money to be competitive and was starting out too far behind frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is now a senator from Utah. Thune endorsed Mitt and campaigned for him in Iowa.
Thune is still a potential president. He is just 59, young compared to the elderly crowd who ran in 2016 and 2020.
After more than two decades in Washington as a congressman and senator, he has a national profile and knows the ins and out of the process. He is good on TV and has allies across the country.
Still, if Thune remains in the Senate, and like Noem, he would be on the South Dakota ballot in 2022, he could join Daschle, the man he sent into retirement, as a majority leader and a major political power. That is an attractive position as well.
Plus, if John Thune eyes a run in 2024, he may find one of his more formidable rivals is a fellow South Dakotan — Kristi Noem.
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