The Rapid City woman who plans to challenge Mike Rounds for his U.S. Senate seat took a winding path to politics that detoured through five college degrees and careers in sales and engineering.
“I don’t regret a minute of it,” Scyller Borglum said last week. “I set out to have an adventurous life, and my life has absolutely been that.”
The 42-year-old Borglum is currently a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives and works as a staff engineer at RESPEC in Rapid City. On July 1, she declared herself a candidate for Rounds’ Senate seat, putting them on a course to square off in the June 2020 Republican primary election.
Borglum moved to South Dakota in 2015, was appointed to fill a vacant state House seat in August 2018, and retained that post by winning in last November's election. That was her first run for public office, which means she’s unknown to most South Dakota voters outside of her legislative district in Rapid City.
Rounds, of Pierre, is a first-term U.S. senator and former two-term governor. His status as a lifelong South Dakotan has been emphasized in early campaign statements from his spokesman, Rob Skjonsberg, who has cast Borglum as a liberal interloper.
“It’s bizarre to be challenged from the left in a GOP primary,” said a portion of a written statement from Skjonsberg. “I understand she’s only lived in South Dakota for three years, so she may lack that historical context. Mike has lived in South Dakota his entire life. South Dakotans know Mike Rounds.”
Borglum, meanwhile, describes herself as a lifelong Republican and conservative with South Dakota roots.
She grew up in Great Falls, Montana, but her parents grew up in South Dakota — her mother in Kimball and her father in Watertown. One of her uncles, David Natvig, is the director of South Dakota’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
Family history says her Danish ancestors adopted the surname “Borglum” — the name of a town in Denmark — upon immigrating to the United States. So, although she shares a last name with the famed carver of Mount Rushmore, the late Gutzon Borglum, she does not claim any relation to him. The name “Scyller,” which is pronounced with a hard “c,” was inspired by additional family roots in Schuyler County, New York.
Borglum’s father, Kent, served in the Army and had a career in accounting and retirement planning before entering the Lutheran ministry (he has served multiple churches, including stints in Freeman and Spearfish). Her mother, Susan, was a stay-at-home mom before launching a career as a stock broker. Kent now serves a church in Montevideo, Minnesota, where he and Susan reside.
Borglum was a high-achieving child with an early interest in government and politics. When she was elected and served as governor of the Montana Youth Legislature as a high school senior in 1995, a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune asked about her political ambitions.
“I’ve thought about governor for Montana and the U.S. Senate,” said the 17-year-old Borglum.
Piling up degrees
After high school, Borglum spent two decades compiling a diverse array of college degrees and professional experience.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and competed on the rowing team at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She also spent time in Oslo, Norway, on a Fulbright Scholarship studying sustainable oil and gas development.
In 2000, her 21-year-old brother, Troy, was killed in a traffic accident. After that tragedy, Borglum sought a master’s degree in theological studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, which she said was partially “my way of working through the spiritual challenges I was having with my brother’s death.”
After earning that degree in 2003 and while dating a man who lived in Oregon, she moved there and sought employment. She eventually landed in pharmaceutical sales and made that her career for about five years, first in Oregon and then in Texas. But, she said, “I knew that just wasn’t my life’s calling.”
In 2014, she earned another master’s degree, this time in petroleum engineering at Montana Tech in Butte, Montana. Her studies there tapped into a longtime interest in energy, dating to her focus on sustainable oil and gas development during her Fulbright Scholarship and her studies of biblical ecology during her time at Duke.
Next, she began working toward a doctorate in geology and geological engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, while commuting between there and a job as a production engineer in North Dakota's booming Bakken Oilfield.
In 2015, she was laid off from her oilfield job when the boom waned, she said, and she also met her future husband, Timothy Masterlark, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at Mines and a former Army paratrooper.
While researching job opportunities in South Dakota, Borglum discovered she would need a bachelor’s degree in engineering to become a professionally licensed engineer. But her bachelor’s was in business. So, while working toward her doctorate in engineering at Mines, and with a master's degree in engineering already in hand, she commuted between Rapid City and Montana Tech to add a bachelor's in engineering.
From 2017 to 2018, she finished those degrees. She now has five college degrees in all, and her husband has three, for a total of eight in their household.
Borglum said her parents helped with the cost of her first degree, but not with the four she obtained after that. She declined to say how much student debt she accumulated.
“I’ve paid off quite a bit of it,” she said.
Borglum and Masterlark married in 2018 (it’s her first marriage, while Masterlark has a college-age daughter and a high-school-age son from a previous marriage). That same year, Borglum was appointed to finish a deceased legislator’s term in the state House of Representatives before she won election to her own House term.
Borglum now works as an engineer in a testing lab at RESPEC in Rapid City, but she plans to eventually take a leave of absence to focus on her campaign. Because she is running for the U.S. Senate rather than re-election to the state House, she will have to surrender her House seat by the end of next year regardless of what happens in the U.S. Senate race.
During her first legislative session last winter, Borglum co-sponsored numerous bills and was the prime sponsor of three, all three of which passed: a bill that cleaned up redundant language in food-service safety codes, a bill that added social workers to the list of professionals whose communications with students are considered privileged, and a resolution calling attention to an educational safety campaign about unmanned aircraft.
Borglum raised eyebrows during a Jan. 30 House Judiciary Committee hearing on another legislator’s bill that would have changed the state’s legal definition of adultery to include same-sex relationships. She asked the bill’s sponsor why he did not include bestiality.
“I only ask,” Borglum said during the hearing, “just because from what I’ve read it’s on the rise, so I thought if we are going to go all in, we might as well go all the way.”
Last week, when asked about the comment, Borglum said she had been trying to argue that adultery definitions in state law are superfluous and should be repealed, because South Dakota allows no-fault divorces.
“In no way was I saying anything about homosexuality,” she said.
Borglum's legislative voting record has not impressed Citizens for Liberty, a tea-party-inspired political nonprofit in Rapid City. The group recently gave her a 29 percent score on its annual 100-point conservative scorecard for legislators.
Her score was doomed by her “no” votes on numerous bills chosen for analysis by Citizens for Liberty, including a bill requiring the posting of “In God We Trust” signage in public schools, which passed; a proposed right for parents to refuse health care treatment that would encourage transgenderism, which was defeated; and a ban on gender-dysphoria instruction in schools, which was also defeated.
Borglum said last week that she considered those and some other, similar bills to be examples of government overreach and violations of conservative principles.
“I believe a real conservative says, ‘Government stays out of people’s business unless there’s an absolute, demonstrated need to get into it,’” Borglum said. “That’s what a conservative is to me. That’s how I was raised.”
Ready to rumble
In April, Borglum antagonized members of the Republican Party’s establishment when she issued a news release alleging that U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., had used intimidation tactics in an attempt to dissuade her from her then-rumored plan to challenge Rounds in a primary. Johnson, in response, acknowledged meeting with Borglum but characterized their interaction as a friendly conversation.
Two months later, she declared herself a candidate for Rounds’ job while pledging her support for President Donald Trump and accusing Rounds of accomplishing too little for conservatives.
Her focus on Trump in recent public statements is a departure from her time as a legislator and legislative candidate, when the president was not a focus of her rhetoric.
“When I went to the state Legislature knowing that President Trump is a controversial figure and knowing that people feel very strongly one way or another and that nobody’s neutral on President Trump, if that wasn’t going to advance the policies that I was trying to bring forward or the work I was trying to get done there, why mention it?” Borglum said.
She said her support for Trump is based in data.
“President Trump’s policies for our economy have worked, and they’ve worked incredibly well,” she said. “I don’t have any interest in salacious gossip or stories of he-said, she-said. I am interested in getting problems solved.”
Rounds also supports Trump, but Borglum alleged that Rounds has not worked hard enough to enact conservative policies. As evidence, she pointed to GovTrack.us, an independent watchdog website. GovTrack publishes congressional analyses including leadership scores, which are compiled in part by determining how often other members co-sponsor a senator’s bills. In GovTrack’s 2018 Senate report card, Rounds’ leadership score ranked 92nd among all senators.
Yet the survey firm Morning Consult listed Rounds at No. 12 in its most recent ranking of senators’ popularity among registered voters in their home state.
Borglum, with her challenge to a sitting senator from her own party, has alienated members of the Republican establishment. And with some of her votes in the Legislature, she may have estranged herself from voters perceived to be in the party's far-right wing.
She estimated that those two factions each control about 10 percent of the party. She hopes to pull support from the other 80 percent, which she described as the “exhausted middle.”
“People complain all the time that nothing is getting done, that they want something better for South Dakota,” Borglum said. “Well, this is their chance to vote for somebody who’s willing to get in there and rumble, and get it done.”
Contact Seth Tupper at firstname.lastname@example.org
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