It’s just a bit ironic that a senator from a state created for exactly the same reason might take issue on this particular point.
Over the span of eight months from November 1889 to July 1890, the country added six new states: Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and Rounds’s South Dakota. It was not preordained that the two Dakotas should enter as separate states, with a furious national debate emerging over the idea.
A newspaper in nearby Minnesota declared in 1886 that the Dakotas should remain “one and inseparable,” and not create two separate states simply to give politicians twice as much opportunity to hold office.
That included Senate seats, of course. By adding the Dakotas as two states, there would suddenly be four senators emerging from a region where none had existed prior, a 5 percent increase in the size of the Senate overnight. And just as no one should be under any illusions as to the partisanship of potential D.C. senators, there was no real question about the partisanship of those four Dakotan senators either.
In the 1888 presidential election, Benjamin Harrison was elected on the strength of northern Republican voters. That included all of the states bordering the six which would soon be added: Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota all backed Harrison.
In that same election, Republicans won a narrow majority in the Senate.
It’s important to note that while Harrison won the electoral vote handily, he lost the popular vote. Then, as now, the population was not evenly distributed, with Harrison winning states such as Oregon, Nevada and Vermont which had relatively few residents but a disproportionate number of electors. The Republicans were worried about losing power permanently.
Writing for the Atlantic in 2019, Boston College’s Heather Cox Richardson described how the party discovered the political utility of adding new states in 1876. That year, Colorado was added to the United States shortly before the presidential election, adding three Republican electoral votes which ended up being decisive in the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.
Richardson describes what happened a decade later.
“In the face of an emerging Democratic majority, Republicans set out to cement their power. The parties had scuffled for years over admission of new states, with Democrats now demanding New Mexico and Montana, and Republicans hoping for Washington and Dakota (which had not yet been divided in two). Before the election, Congress had discussed bringing in all four states together, but as soon as the Republican victory was clear, Democrats realized they had to get the best deal they could or Republicans would simply admit the Republican states and ignore the Democratic ones, as they had done in 1876. So on February 22, 1889, outgoing President Cleveland signed an act dividing the Dakota Territory in half, and permitting the two new territories, along with Montana and Washington, to write constitutions before admission to the union the following year. They passed over New Mexico, which had twice the population of any of the proposed states.”
The intent of dividing the Dakotas was not a mystery at the time. In 1885, the St. Paul Daily Globe summarized one point of view on the subject.
“There is no such territory as South Dakota. It is a fiction,” its front page read on Dec. 29 of that year. “ … South Dakota is a mythical political organization and for all practical purposes may as well be called the territory of Timbuctoo as to speak of it as the Dakota state or territorial government.”
To approve of Dakota as one state, however? That, the essay continued, would likely “receive the cordial support of the Democrats in that body.”
That view did not prevail. All six states, including the two Dakotas, were added. All 12 new senators were Republican.
What’s particularly remarkable about this turn of events is that it remains responsible for the Republican Party holding half of the seats in the Senate. Of those 12 seats added during that stretch in 1889-1890, Republicans still hold nine seats — a six-seat advantage for the party.
It is also the reason that Rounds has his current job. South Dakota is not much less partisan than D.C., backing Donald Trump in 2020 by a margin of 62 percent to 32 percent.
The partisan machinations that created South Dakota offer another lesson about American politics. Three years after those six states were added, Democrats regained the White House and the Senate by convincing margins.
The debate over adding D.C. as a state is a robust one, hinging in part on the constitutional requirement that the seat of federal government, however bounded, be a separate entity. But it is certainly not without precedent for a state to be added for partisan benefit — something that the senator from South Dakota, of all places, should know.