Lalley: Predicting the political future of Mayor Paul TenHaken

The 2026 election cycle is shaping up as a big one for South Dakota Republicans climbing the political ladder.

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Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken was among the speakers at the announcement of the Riverline District development at the Washington Pavilion on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.
Patrick Lalley / Sioux Falls Live

SIOUX FALLS – Let’s break out the crystal ball.

Wait, where did it go?

I know I have it here somewhere.

(Shuffling paper sounds. Drawers opening and closing.)

Ah yes, here it is, tucked into a back corner of my desk here in tony southeast Sioux Falls.


It’s a small ball, not the deluxe model employed by the finest prognosticators in the nation on the TV political talk shows.

Given the limited capacity of this particular orb, it’s necessary to supplement its predictive power with some reporting.

Which brings us to the question of the day. What’s going on with Mayor Paul TenHaken?

Running the Best Little City in America is a big job. There’s no discounting that.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken on Wednesday, Jan. 4, discusses the city's response to a major winter storm during a press conference at City Hall.
Contributed / City of Sioux Falls

Everybody wants a piece of the mayor, any mayor, and there are often difficult decisions that will upset one constituency or another. That’s just the nature of an executive branch gig.

Which is fine until you start thinking about the next job.

And yes, it might be a little early to start handicapping the field for the next election cycle, but such is the state of modern politics.

The people who are eyeing offices down the line are already building the framework of what could be a campaign. That includes surrounding yourself with the people who will be on the team. It means firming up relationships with the major donors and interest groups.


The Department of Corrections is looking for land to replace the aging penitentiary near the city's downtown.

And most importantly, establishing your reputation with voters.

Ah, the voters.

Which brings us back to the current mayor of Sioux Falls and the potential dilemma he faces.

Better shine up this crystal ball, which now that I look at it seems smaller all the time. More like a crystal baseball.

At any rate, Paul TenHaken’s term is up in 2026. That’s still quite a ways off but it’s also shaping up to be one of those big pivotal cycles in South Dakota in which a lot of people move around.

Right now, that means a lot of Republicans.

Until the Democrats or some other political entity are able to forward a competitive candidate for a statewide race, we’re going to limit this discussion to the GOP.

Remembering that this is a media outlet concerned primarily with Sioux Fallsians, we’re going to concentrate primarily on the mayor.


In 2026 there will be elections for governor, House and Senate. The big ones.

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Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
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Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

Current Rep. Dusty Johnson is going to want one of those seats. A man can only stand 434 friends for so long.

It’s his time.

The crystal baseball says Dusty wants to be governor.

Current Gov. Kristy Noem is term limited so she can’t run again. (Let’s just push that whole presidential thing to the side for now, shall we?)

And the crystal baseball says… U.S. Senate.

You are correct, that seat is currently occupied by M. Michael Rounds, former two-term governor.

What will M. Michael Rounds do? Defend that pass to the Senate Dining Room against the Noem invasion? Or, as has been bandied about recently, come home and run for governor.


The mansion has a TV studio now so there’s that added perk.

The baseball is a bit murky on this question and perhaps it doesn’t matter what M. Michael Rounds decides. He’s going to face a primary in either spot.

The thing he may be weighing — and again, it’s a ways off — is whether he’s got that kind of fight in him. A quiet life on the banks of the Missouri River may just be too attractive.

Expanded supply of marijuana won't change the policies and practice of Sioux Falls Police Department

We’ve taken the long way home to the original premise. What’s up with Mayor Paul TenHaken?

The baseball says PTH ain’t done with politics. So it’s likely a run for that open seat in the House of Representatives.

What are his chances?

One glance into the crystal baseball reveals a number of shiny Republican faces who are probably thinking the same thing.

There is surely going to be bloody political warfare on several fronts in that primary season. These chances don’t come around that often.


TenHaken has the connections to build an organization. He’s proven he can raise money. He’s still young — 45 — and ambitious.

After tasting the nectar of political leadership it’s hard to imagine a life back in digital marketing.

Here’s the problem.

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City councilors David Barranco (left), Rich Merkouris and Alex Jensen listen to Mayor Paul TenHaken during discussion of street funding on Tuesday, Jan. 25.
Patrick Lalley / Sioux Falls Live

He’s mayor of Sioux Falls. In the current collection of factions that is the South Dakota Republican Party, it could just as well be Santa Fe. (I was going to say San Francisco but that’s stretching credulity even for me.)

TenHaken’s perceived conservatism among Sioux Fallsians has little sway once you cross the James River. Even M. Michael Rounds got ambushed in Lawrence County, accused of going soft in D.C.

Anything the mayor does will show up on a postcard in the mailboxes of loyal Republican primary voters.

For instance, what if you approved a mural that has any suggestion of LBGTQ imagery.

Topics produce discussion and controversy because they are what people care about, for better or worse.

Or, perhaps you endorsed a sustainability plan that in any way appeared to affirm the human contributions to a warming planet.


Maybe a picture of you shaking hands at a pride event.

Or not fervently opposing recreational marijuana.

That’s not to say that TenHaken is calculating or cynical in his decision making. Or that somehow the lure of the next job is dictating policy in this one.

But if you’re in politics today. If you’re a Republican in South Dakota. If you want to climb the ladder of leadership, you step carefully, lest you taste the blade of the right.

At least that’s what this crystal… tangerine maybe… is telling me.

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at
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