Who's your cowboy or cowgirl in the GOP run for governor? Just ask (almost all) the county sheriffs

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

When a certain political ad is being played on TV a lot, you figure it must be working. Or at least, you figure somebody thinks it must be working.

So I figured one of those two things, or maybe both, about the Marty Jackley ad with the sheriffs.

You’ve probably seen the ad. One after the other, sheriffs from Faulk, Corson, Butte and Yankton counties endorse the attorney general in his GOP primary run for governor against U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.

Sitting in a clean, well-lighted place before black backgrounds, each sheriff looks into the camera and makes a couple of emphatic endorsement comments, praising Jackley as a conservative, trustworthy leader with “a thumb on the heartbeat of the whole state."

Stuff like that. Pretty typical campaign chatter. Then there’s this sequence:

“He’s cowboy enough to be governor,” says Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere.

“Anybody that says otherwise don’t know what they’re talking about,” adds Faulk County Sheriff Kurt Hall.

I like those comments, and the way they're delivered. And as the sheriffs make their political pitches, a sign flashes saying Jackley has the support of 62 county sheriffs in South Dakota.

In a state with 66 counties, that’s not bad. Of course, it’s not all, either. I assume a couple of the missing sheriffs could be Democrats. We have a few of those left, don’t we? And I know two of the four missing sheriffs are from the state’s biggest counties: Minnehaha and Pennington.

I suspected as much, and a couple of phone calls confirmed it.

So how does the AG manage not to get those big-county endorsements? Well, Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead tends not to endorse candidates. Period.

“I’ve been asked over the years to endorse mayoral candidates, gubernatorial candidates, even when the primaries for president were going on, they were asking a number of sheriffs for endorsements. I just don’t do that. I don’t endorse candidates,” Milstead said. “I sometimes support bills, not actual candidates. I frankly believe when somebody goes in the voting booth in Minnehaha County, they’re not scratching their head saying, ‘Now who does Mike Milstead want me to vote for?’”

Milstead says he has a “great relationship with Jackley as attorney general” and appreciates his work with and support for law enforcement.

“I have great respect for him. I just don’t do endorsements,” Milstead said. “It would be kind of a slap in the face to all those candidates who have asked me before.”

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom was hesitant to endorse this year, since he’s running for reelection. At the time Jackley sought Thom’s endorsement, it still wasn't clear whether Thom would have opposition in the sheriff’s race.

Turns out, Thom didn’t get a challenger. But he didn’t know that then.

“I was waiting to see if I had an opponent or opponents,” Thom said. “I didn’t want to complicate my own race, so I didn’t want to take a public position on either of the candidates.”

Other sheriffs did, however. And if you've missed the TV version of the sheriffs ad, you can check it on youTube. Jackley campaign Communications Director Joe Schartz says the feedback is the kind a campaign official likes to see from a commercial. For example:

“A mother approached us and said she was a conservative voter who had a hard time choosing between the two candidates, until she saw the sheriff ad,” Schartz said. “Jackley’s relationship with local law enforcement convinced her he is the best choice for governor.”

I enjoyed the sheriffs add, especially since I’ve spent some time bouncing around the Butte County plains in a pickup with Fred Lamphere. And I love his “cowboy enough” quote, and the follow-up by Sheriff Hall.

Just one thing, though, on the “cowboy enough to be governor” thing. There no evidence that being a “cowboy enough” is an important qualification to be governor. Quite the opposite, actually, if you look at South Dakota's history of voting. Cowboy governors are rare. Almost unheard, in fact.

Walter Dale Miller was a cowboy from New Underwood who served as a state legislative leader and lieutenant governor to Gov. George S. Mickelson. Miller stepped in as governor in April of 1993 when the second-term Mickelson died in an airplane crash that also killed seven other South Dakotans who were flying back from a business trip in another state.

Miller served out the remainder of Mickelson’s term, then was beaten in the 1994 GOP primary by former Gov. Bill Janklow — a lawyer, like Jackley. Speaking of which, try this on for size as a campaign call: "He's lawyer enough to be governor."

OK, OK, it might not have the same colloquial appeal. But lawyering leads to governing at the executive-branch level in South Dakota a lot more often than cowboying does.

Although Miller served as governor, the only true cowboy who actually won the governor’s chair in an election was Tom Berry, a rancher from Belvidere who was elected to a couple of two-year terms in the 1930s.  Tom Berry was also unusual in that he was a Democrat, one of only four in South Dakota history to be elected governor.

And speaking of four, that’s how many governors came from West River. So, promoting the West River cowboy factor in a governor’s race could be considered a double political negative.

Then, of course, you can argue that the ads are emphasizing what should be obvious: law enforcement supports the state’s top law-enforcement official.

No, duh. If they don’t support him, he’s got a problem.

I’ve also spoken to people who think the sheriffs add overplays law enforcement. They think Jackley should have long since proven himself in that arena. They are more interested in what he can and would do in the many other areas where a governor must be knowledgeable, thoughtful and effective.

But  Jackley works on diversity and nuance in other ads, including two Facebook commercials that are among my favorites.

One endorsement features old-car mogul Dave Geisler giving Jackley a tour of his delightfully eclectic Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, with lighting that was clearly difficult for the videographer to balance. 

But changing skin tones aside, Geisler does his thing in an effective way for Jackley, as those of us who know Geisler would expect.

Another that caught my eye is an endorsement with former Lt. Gov. Lowell Hansen, a blast from the past for those of us old enough to feel the pellets. I’m not sure who among today’s voting public still remembers Hansen, other than an old reporter who actually covered him during his political heyday. Hansen promotes Jackley’s executive management experience, compared to that of legislators like, oh, the unnamed-but-clearly referenced Kristi Noem.

I’m not sure how much those ads mean to other people. But overall, the parade of South Dakota faces and South Dakota names in the Jackley Facebook ads — some of which carry over into newspaper, TV and radio — diversify his campaign-advertising portfolio. And they're also fun to watch.

Schartz said military veterans ads with Sioux Falls businessman Les Cummings, a retired South Dakota Army National Guard sergeant major, have been youTube hits, with almost 100,000 views.

How that translates into ballot-box votes remains to be seen, and seen in less than three weeks.

With a spring flood of campaign ads -- some that will work, some that won't -- between now and then.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.