The political career of Ben Reifel

Today is Sept. 19. By governor’s proclamation, it is Ben Reifel Day in South Dakota. He was born on this day in 1906.

The Republican was the first Lakota to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first American Indian elected from South Dakota after winning the state’s First District seat in the 1960 general election.

Reifel retired from the U.S. House rather than seek re-election in 1970. He died Jan. 2, 1990, of cancer in Sioux Falls.

Here is the story of how the long-time federal Bureau of Indian Affairs official came to be a candidate for elected office in 1960.

Republican Karl Mundt moved from the U.S. House seat to the U.S. Senate in the 1948 general election. Republican Harold Lovre of Watertown won the U.S. House seat. Lovre faced the same Democratic opponent, Merton Tice, as Mundt had in 1946. Tice lost for the second time in a row.

Lovre ran for re-election in 1950, 1952 and 1954. The Democratic candidates who lost in each race were Tice who ran a third time in 1950, then Goldie Wells and Francis Dunn. In 1956, Democratic candidate George McGovern took out Lovre 116,516 to 105,835.

McGovern beat his Republican challenger, Joe Foss, a sitting governor, in the 1958 general election. Meanwhile South Dakota voters also elected a Democrat, Ralph Herseth, as governor. Herseth had lost in 1956 to Foss for governor when Foss sought re-election. (State officials held two-year terms until voters amended the South Dakota Constitution to four-year terms in 1972.)

Herseth ran again in 1958 for governor and this time beat Republican Phil Saunders 132,761 to 125,520. In 1960, McGovern ran for the U.S. Senate against Mundt, the Republican incumbent. The Republicans and the Democrats had primary elections June 7, 1960, for the House seat that McGovern would vacate.

Ben Reifel won the Republican nomination. He received 29,287 votes, followed by Dan Stuelpnagel with 15,788 and Raymond Dana 9,084. Democratic voters nominated Ray Fitzgerald 16,409 to 12,175 for Robert Chamberlain.

The general election Nov. 8, 1960, saw Reifel roll past Fitzgerald 126,033 to 103,755. South Dakota voters – at least those in the First District – had elected the state’s first American Indian to Congress.

Meanwhile Mundt turned aside McGovern for the U.S. Senate 160,181 to 145,261. Herseth also lost his bid for re-election as governor. Republican Archie Gubbrud slipped past the Democratic incumbent 154,530 to 150,095.

The death of U.S. Sen. Francis Case, a Republican, on June 22, 1962, set off a scramble. Case was up for re-election. Republicans voters had already nominated Case in the June 5 primary against A.C. Miller, the Republican attorney general, choosing Case 57,583 to 11,414.

Gov. Gubbrud was responsible to choose Case’s replacement. Gubbrud offered the seat to Foss the day after Case died. Foss was under contract as the American Football League’s new commissioner. Foss wanted a day to check with his employer. When Foss called Gubbrud on June 24, Gubbrud had changed his mind.

Gubbrud instead turned the decision over to a convention of South Dakota Republican delegates. Seven candidates, including Reifel and Foss, made known their desires for the Senate seat. The Republican delegates chose Lt. Gov. Joseph Bottum to fill the remainder of Case’s term.

Foss put his delegates behind Bottum, then legislator Nils Boe did too. Their people helped to help push Bottum across the line on the twentieth ballot. One week later, Republican state-convention delegates rewarded Boe with the nomination for lieutenant governor, replacing Bottum. Two years later, Boe won election as the Republican nominee for governor.

Bottum meanwhile lost the Nov. 6, 1962, general election to McGovern, after a statewide recount that Bottum conceded Dec. 4, 1962.

Reifel had also proceeded back to the 1962 campaign for re-election to the First District seat in the U.S. House. Reifel defeated Democratic challenger Ralph Nauman 113,975 to 78,421.

Gubbrud’s handling of the Case vacancy didn’t seem to hurt his re-election campaign for governor. Facing Herseth for the second time – and Herseth’s fourth consecutive candidacy as the Democratic nominee – Gubbrud won 144,682 to 112,438. Gubbrud had fallen about 10,000 votes from his 1960 number, but Herseth dropped by more than three times that many, about 38,000, from Herseth’s 1960 total.

In 1964 Congressman Reifel won re-election a second time, defeating Democratic challenger George May 124,791 to 92,057. Reifel won again in 1966, doubling down against Democratic candidate Francis Richter in a low-turnout contest 80,592 to 40,236. Reifel won re-election for the fourth and final time in 1968. He beat Democratic challenger Frank Denholm 85,232 to 61,738.

Reifel decided he wouldn’t run again in 1970. That opened the way for a five-candidate Republican primary won by Dexter Gunderson. Waiting was the Democratic nominee, Denholm, who didn’t have a primary. Denholm defeated Gunderson 71,636 to 56,330.

Denholm won re-election to the First District seat in 1972. Republicans had a three-candidate primary in 1974, won by Larry Pressler. That November, Pressler defeated Denholm 78,266 to 63,339.

Ben Reifel meanwhile accepted some federal appointments from President Richard Nixon and, after Nixon’s resignation, from President Gerald Ford. Reifel finished his career as acting commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the final two months of the Ford administration at the end of 1976.

Reifel became a trustee for the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings in 1977. He had lived seven years in Brookings as a young man, moving from the Rosebud reservation in 1925. He had graduated eighth grade in 1922 at the age of 16 and then worked three years on the family’s farm before setting out east.

He took his high school classes through a vocational program in Brookings and earned a bachelor degree from South Dakota State College there in 1932. When he returned in 1977 to the art museum’s board, Reifel made long-term loans to the museum’s collection of American Indian works from his personal holdings. In 2004 the museum acquired 18 of the items. He was trustees president in 1982 and 1983.

Correction: This post originally said he started the museum’s American Indian collection through donations from his personal holdings.