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1986: Watershed election for South Dakota
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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

The 1980s dawned on the nation with the election of Ronald Reagan, a president who still casts a shadow over American political discourse. That same election brought the defeat of Sen. George McGovern, a Mitchell native and liberal standard-bearer for the nation, by Republican Congressman Jim Abdnor.

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In a wave election, McGovern and 11 other Democratic U.S. senators lost their seats as Republicans took over and Reagan emerged as a conservative iconoclast.

But as much as the 1980 election changed the political landscape for both the state and nation, it would be Abdnor's next election, in 1986, that would reverberate in South Dakota politics for three decades and beyond. In addition to Abdnor, the '86 election included others who made long-lasting impacts on the South Dakota political scene -- Bill Janklow, Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson, George Mickelson and Lars Herseth.

Read more about the political players of the 1980s.

'A watershed election'

It's difficult to say which of the races in 1986 made the most impact. As with any epic tale, the stories intertwine. No matter how historians slice it, 1986 was a big year for South Dakota politics.

"You can say 1986 was a watershed election. It helped create a couple of very long careers," said Jon Schaff, political science professor at Northern State University.

On the Republican side, party loyalists took sides in a bruising U.S. Senate primary between Janklow and Abdnor, a battle between a take-no-prisoners, two-term governor and a genteel man of the people who had served four terms in the U.S. House. Term limits barred Janklow from running again for governor, so he challenged Abdnor.

"They were both very able politicians at the peak of their power," said Frank Brost, who served as chief of staff to Republican Gov. George Mickelson. "It built a wedge in the Republican Party; there became the Abdnor loyalists and the Janklow loyalists."

Democrats would tip the scales at the congressional level, seizing on the poor farm economy to grab two of the state's three Capitol Hill offices.

"For those national offices this was a great boon to the Democratic Party," NSU's Schaff said of the farm crisis. "They captured lightning in a bottle. Everything lined up for them."

In the race for governor, two state lawmakers ran a close race. Former House Speaker George S. Mickelson, a Republican, defeated three other Republicans to run in the general election. He would face South Dakota House Minority Leader Lars Herseth, a Democrat, who had bested former Gov. Richard Kneip and Public Utilities Commissioner Ken Stofferahn in a primary.

Herseth came as close to the governor's office as any Democrat has in 35 years. Had he won, it would have been a Democratic sweep.

That ran counter to the broader trend toward conservatism that took off with Reagan's election in 1980, said Pete Stavrianos, an aide and adviser to McGovern and Daschle.

"It was a perfect storm of circumstances that caused a large-sized and lasting bump against the conservative trend that had real impacts in the state for 18 years after that," Stavrianos said.

Janklow vs. Abdnor

Both Abdnor and Janklow died in 2012, so they can't tell their own stories. But a then-young Abdnor aide named John Thune remembers the mood. Abdnor and Janklow had been friends, but ambition would strain that relationship.

The outgoing governor would take on the sitting U.S. senator.

"Janklow was term-limited (as governor), and he wanted to continue in public life. There just weren't that many places to go," said Thune, now South Dakota's junior U.S. senator. "I think Janklow had a genuine affection for Jim, and I think Jim liked Janklow, too. They were both in their own rights very successful and well-liked, and not just among Republicans."

Longtime Janklow friend and aide Harry Christianson, of Rapid City, said Janklow did not agonize over whether to run against a sitting senator.

"I don't think it was a tough thing to get into it. There were so many people encouraging him to," Christianson said. "Bill thought he could do a better job. That's all. It wasn't anything against Jim, who was a terribly good guy."

Janklow was showing GOP insiders results of a poll that showed he could beat Daschle in the general election while Abdnor was likely to lose. Abdnor had results of another poll that showed if the two GOP titans took each other on in a primary, neither of them would be able to beat Daschle in the fall, Thune said.

Christianson remembers the polls, too, but his assessment remains that Abdnor was destined to lose the general election, primary race or not.

Thune remembers South Dakota Republicans taking sides in the "perhaps inevitable" primary campaign.

"It was really hard. That race made the whole relationship very, very difficult. This is a small state; everybody has the same friends," Thune said. "That was a painful episode for a lot of people to go through."

Janklow was well aware that, even as the two-term governor, he faced a headwind in taking on Abdnor, then-young campaign aide Jerus Campbell said. At the same time, Janklow campaigned much the way he governed -- damn the torpedoes and full-speed ahead.

"There was always an undercurrent. Bill knew what he was doing -- challenging truly the grandfather within the Republican Party. He struggled with that," Campbell said. "He felt very, very strongly that for the good of the state and the Republican Party, he really needed to do it because he felt like he could beat Tom Daschle."

Campbell, now an attorney, was one of three day-to-day campaign staffers who had taken a break from law school to accompany Janklow around the state. The others were Janklow's son, Russ Janklow, and Talbot Wieczorek, now a Rapid City attorney.

"Having this campaign during Bill's governorship was just another project in his life," Campbell said, describing Janklow as "always an intense person."

They often used Janklow's mother's RV as the campaign vehicle, Campbell said, remembering a trip from Sioux Falls to Aberdeen during "a horrible blizzard."

"It was in February, a raging blizzard like we've all seen. The four of us got in that RV and took off for Aberdeen. I suppose there was no way we should have been on the road," Campbell said. "It was so icy, that RV was like a sail. It literally was pushing us across the interstate, and we were bucking snow drifts. But Bill was going to be at that promised engagement."

The group made it into Aberdeen only to get stuck in the street one block away from the destination.

"That's not a politically charged story, but that tells you a lot," Campbell said.

Just as Janklow's take-no-prisoners style launched him to lofty heights, Abdnor's gift was retail politics, essential in a state full of small towns. Abdnor knew how to work a room.

Thune remembers his boss connecting with almost every person at any given event, remembering not just their names but family members and other significant details.

"He was the kind of guy in South Dakota that proved retail politics can really work," Thune said. "I watched him in all kinds of different settings, watched him work rooms. He just had a real gift for it."

Brost agrees. "Abdnor was great at it, absolutely great at it."

Those personal connections translated into votes, and Abdnor came out on top, defeating Janklow with 54.5 percent of the vote.

Christianson called the loss "pretty disappointing," but said it wasn't a surprise as he does not recall a time when the polls showed Janklow leading Abdnor.

Campbell agrees and said despite Janklow's likely defeat, the loss still came as a blow.

"There's no mental preparation for losing, none whatsoever. It's like sports. It ain't over till it's over. Any team can win on any given day," he said. "Then again, when you do lose, he's a very, very gracious man. From that point on, he never had anything but a kind word for Jim Abdnor."

Said Christianson, "He got over it, obviously, and then came back. He was the Energizer Bunny."

After his defeat, Janklow offered his help to the Abdnor campaign. He flew to Washington to help Abdnor prep for his debates against Daschle, Thune said.

Mending the fences was perhaps wise given the deep and wide affection within the state for Abdnor.

"The voters loved Jim Abdnor," Christianson said. "To this day they love Jim Abdnor."

Daschle seizes on farm crisis

With the Mount Rushmore State down to a single U.S. House district after the 1980 Census, Democrat Tom Daschle found himself courting conservatives from the western part of the state in 1982 and 1984, having tougher campaigns than in his first two races.

"If I had had those easy races, there was a possibility I would have given consideration to staying in the House," he said. "I was on a leadership career path there, and I really was thinking about working my way through leadership in the House.

"I thought, 'If I'm going to have to run a tough race every two years, I might as well have a tough race in '86 and get over it one way or the other."

The Senate also appealed to Daschle because it brought increased responsibility, he said, naming treaties and the confirmation of presidential nominees specifically.

"The overall value that it brings to public service goes up about 10 notches when you go from the House to the Senate," he said.

Daschle said the rumblings that Janklow would likely take on Abdnor in a primary factored into his decision, as did 1986 being a non-presidential election year, giving Democrats better odds in Republican-leaning South Dakota.

"It was probably the best shot I would have to run," Daschle said.

Daschle would take on the beloved Abdnor in the general election, but his timing was right.

"Jim Abdnor was very, very popular but not the right kind of person for the way people felt then," said Pete Stavrianos, an aide and adviser who helped elect Daschle to the House and Senate. "It was really hard to work up a dislike for the guy because he was such a decent person."

Nonetheless, voters were restless in the face of a farm crisis that gripped the state. That one issue dominated South Dakota's 1986 election. Interest rates were high and commodity prices were low.

"It was a near depression for agriculture," said NSU's Schaff. "For farmers, servicing their debt became extremely difficult. As prices collapsed, they just couldn't service their debt. People were losing farms left and right."

Thune agrees, saying Abdnor was saddled with Reagan's hands-off policy on agriculture. He called the farm economy "a pretty potent issue," saying Democratic campaigns that year -- "for sure Daschle's campaign" -- were built around criticizing Reagan's farm policy.

"When Daschle was running against Jim, it was all about the farm bill -- if he were elected, he would rewrite the '85 farm bill," Thune said.

Without that issue, Daschle would have had a much tougher time winning, observers agree. More specifically, Stavrianos said, Abdnor went off-script at a press conference and said farmers might have to sell below cost for a time.

"I remember poor Jim stumbling into a mistake that was the core issue of our campaign," he said. "It played into Daschle's overall theme -- this farm program isn't fair, it favors rich farmers over small farmers, and we need somebody who will do something about it."

Then, just a few weeks before the election, President Reagan made his second South Dakota campaign stop to support Abdnor. Thune describes the visit as "not particularly helpful," saying Reagan's advance team did not research the top issues in the state.

"Reagan had a standard message and he did not talk about agriculture," Thune said of Reagan's trip to Rapid City. An earlier visit to Sioux Falls had gone much better.

"The Sioux Falls trip was a huge smash with a big crowd and a lot of energy," Thune said.

Schaff said Abdnor's poll numbers came up after Reagan's Rapid City visit but not enough to overtake Daschle, who won with 51.6 percent of the vote.

"His message was, 'You need to decide whether you need somebody really strong to fight this crisis or not,'" Stavrianos said. "That is why Tom Daschle won. He won it in the farm belt in the east."

When Johnson was an upstart

While Daschle was sizing up his prospects, a 39-year-old Democratic state legislator named Tim Johnson was campaigning to win a primary against fellow lawmaker Jim Burg and Dean Sinclair to run for the U.S. House seat Daschle would leave open.

"When the rumor was that Daschle would run against Abdnor for the Senate, that's when I became serious about running for the U.S. House," Johnson said. "My assessment at the time was all the strongest Democrats were running for governor and this was my best chance to win."

After nearly three decades on Capitol Hill, Sen. Johnson is circumspect about his rookie days. But that first statewide race made a big impact on his son, Brendan Johnson, then a fifth-grader.

"We were not at all sure we were going to win that primary. There was an awful lot of uncertainty," the younger Johnson recalls.

In fact, Johnson expected to lose, so he stayed in his hometown of Vermillion and attended a pizza party held to thank his supporters.

"We were in the pizza restaurnt, and Dad was shaking hands when KELO came on and said they were predicting Tim Johnson was going to win," Brendan said. "This caught us by surprise. We had been behind all night."

The Johnson family "jumped in the car" and set out for a victory party in Sioux Falls.

After that primary win in June, the family had five more months of campaigning for the general election in November.

"I remember a lot of parades," Brendan said. "My job was to walk up and down and give people stickers. That was an awakening for a fifth-grader, to have people say, 'We don't want your sticker' and to realize not everybody likes my dad."

Tim Johnson won against Republican Dale Bell in the general election with 59 percent of the vote.

Even with the rejection he suffered along South Dakota's parade routes, the younger Johnson remembers a kinder, gentler political arena in the 1980s.

"I don't know if it was that I was in the fifth grade and I was much more innocent, but politics and campaigns were a lot different back in 1986. People weren't as angry as they are now. People were more interested in who is the most competent person," he said.

"Back then it was more about electing somebody that could help solve the problems that you and your family and your community have. I thought that was the greatest thing in world, that my father wanted to go to Washington to try to help people. I hope we can get back to that someday."

Mickelson vs. Herseth

Mark Mickelson and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin remember the year their fathers campaigned against each other to lead South Dakota. (The Daily Republic was unable to contact Lars Herseth for this article; George Mickelson died in a 1993 plane crash.)

For Mickelson, now a member of the South Dakota Legislature, he remembers the very beginning when his father, George S. Mickelson, was one of four Republicans in a primary.

"He started out in that campaign with a pretty uphill climb. They did a poll, and I think he had 9 percent name ID, and most of those people thought he was his dad," said Mark Mickelson, whose grandfather, George T. Mickelson, served as governor from 1947 to 1951.

In 1986, Mickelson faced better established politicians in the primary -- former Congressman Clint Roberts, South Dakota Secretary of State Alice Kundert and Lt. Gov. Lowell Hansen.

Mickelson's six years in the Legislature didn't put him at the top of voters' minds, but that and an exhaustive campaign made him "everybody's second choice," Mark Mickelson said. In a crowded primary, that added up to 35.3 percent of the primary vote -- just enough to avoid a run-off and put Mickelson on the general election ballot.

He would become the first South Dakota candidate for governor to raise and spend more than $1 million, his son said.

A combination of a winning personality and a lot of shoe-leather campaigning contributed to his father's success, said Mark Mickelson, who spent his summer break from college driving his father around the state.

"He worked it hard. He always said he wasn't going to be out-worked," Mickelson said. "And people did like him."

The younger Mickelson doesn't recall any issue dominating the governor's race.

"It felt more like a farmer from Brown County and a lawyer from Brookings County, and people ended up voting on personalities -- what they did and where they came from," he said. "'Video lottery was on the ballot that year. The stock answer was, 'We'll go with whatever the people decide. If they pass it, we'll make sure we run it as well as we can.'"

Mickelson led the race throughout the summer and early fall, according to the campaign's internal polling, he said. Then, possibly due to problems plaguing President Ronald Reagan with Iran Contra and possibly due to the farm crisis, the entire Republican ticket slid 8 to 10 points about 10 days before the election, he said.

Herseth Sandlin, too, has "lots of memories" of the 1986 race, and they blend in with memories of traveling with her mother and brother to the Capitol in Pierre to watch her father in the Legislature.

Then a freshman and sophomore in high school, Herseth Sandlin didn't play as active a role in her father's campaign, but she remembers attending parades and debates. When Election Day arrived, she recruited some friends to do get-out-the-vote work in Aberdeen.

"We were walking neighborhoods, we had a phone bank, we were driving people to the courthouse," she said.

By the time the polls closed, it looked like Tom Daschle had clinched victory in the U.S. Senate race, and Tim Johnson was "running away with" the U.S. House race, she said. In the governor's race, CNN projected Lars Herseth the winner, which caused lots of excitement within the campaign, save for one.

"I knew the numbers weren't there," Herseth Sandlin said. As the night wore on, the election returns would prove her correct.

Mickelson remembers a "nip and tuck" election night, but the Mickelson campaign staffers knew they were strong in the west while Herseth was strong in the East River farm country.

"Hughes County came in and then Pennington County came in. Those were the deciders," he said.

The final result: Mickelson, 51.8 percent; Herseth, 48.2 percent.

"It was after midnight when my mom pulled me aside and said, 'Don't cry. You pick a spot on the floor and you stare at it,'" Herseth Sandlin said of the family gathering for her father's concession speech. "The loss was hard, but life went on."

Nearly 30 years later, the children of both candidates are in politics -- Mickelson as a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives and Herseth Sandlin having won three elections to the U.S. House before losing in 2010.

Herseth Sandlin said she got the bug watching her father in the Legislature, even before that 1986 race, and then later when he returned to the Legislature and she served as a page.

"At different points in my life, I have tried to put up a wall to it," she said of politics. "There's always something that pulls me back."

Political landscape transformed

As the sun set on 1980s South Dakota, the political landscape looked different than at the decade's start.

Mickelson, heading to re-election to a second term, made economic development a top focus and created the Future Fund and the Revolving Economic Development Initiative (REDI) Fund. Some controversy over how those funds are administered continues to the present day, with a $1 million Future Fund grant going to the ill-fated Northern Beef Packers project in Aberdeen, now embroiled in a federal investigation.

His work followed Janklow pushing through a new law to remove the state's limit on interest rates and paving the way for the present-day financial services industry that has grown into a major factor in the state's economy.

A move to the state by Citibank shortly after the law passed sparked the trend that would become Janklow's most enduring legacy, said Dave Knudson, who would come to serve as Janklow's chief of staff when he was elected to another two terms as governor in the '90s.

"The Citibank move to Sioux Falls and the whole move into financial services, what that did for Sioux Falls is the most outstanding achievement," Knudson said. "All of the subsequent development in the financial services area has been an outgrowth of the initial movement to South Dakota by Citibank."

The Democrats that had been successful in 1986 still held the majority of the state's seats on Capitol Hill, a balance that would endure until 2010.

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