When South Dakota’s former two-term Gov. Mike Rounds made it official last week that he would seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator in 2014, it was national news. After an election year in which Republicans began with high hopes of winning a majority in the Senate only to end with a net loss of two seats from their ranks, news that Rounds was poised to challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson was truly something to cheer for the dispirited GOP.
“Instantly competitive,” is how the Hill characterized the likely contest between conservative Rounds and two-term liberal Democrat Johnson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 16.67 percent). During eight years (2002-2010) in the statehouse, Rounds held the line on taxes and spending and took a strong pro-life stance. A Rasmussen Poll in October of 2010 showed that 67 percent of South Dakotans approved of his performance.
About the only thing that some conservatives might object about Rounds is that he has long refused to sign the anti-tax pledge of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on the grounds it limits one’s ability to negotiate.
Although Johnson has raised more than $1.2 million, he has said he will make a decision about running again at the end of the year. The senator’s stroke a few years ago has always led to speculation he would step down in 2014. Should he do so, the most likely Democratic candidates are former Rep. (2004-2010) Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and U.S. Attorney Bradley Johnson, the senator’s son.
One intriguing factor working against former Gov. Rounds’ bid for the Senate is history. For inexplicable reasons, South Dakotans have denied their former or lame duck governors a chance at higher office. In 1958, for example, outgoing Republican Gov. Joe Foss—famed as a World War II flying ace—was defeated in a bid for the House against Democratic Rep. George McGovern. Four years later, former Gov. Foss tried unsuccessfully to win the seat of the late Republican Sen. Francis Case and lost the nomination.
In 1968, former Gov. (1960-64) Archie Gubbrud became the Republican nominee for the Senate after lame-duck Gov. Nils Boe decided not to challenge incumbent Sen. McGovern. Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon campaigned with Gubbrud and billboards proclaimed “Nixon Needs Archie.” But McGovern—who should have been vulnerable for his strong anti-Vietnam War stance—won with 57 percent of the vote.
In 1986, termed-out Gov. William Janklow challenged then-GOP Sen. Jim Abdnor in the primary. They agreed on most issues and, Abdnor charged, Janklow had broken his word to the senator not to run. Abdnor narrowly survived but went on to lose to Democrat Tom Daschle in the fall.
“No former governor has ever won a Senate seat in South Dakota, with the last sitting governor to do so being 70 years ago,” Eric Ostermeier wrote in “Smart Politics,” whose study showed that “five of the last six campaigns by ex- or sitting governors ending in failure since the Great Depression.”