South Dakota Democrats think this election year has the makings of a perfect storm that could land a Democrat in the governor’s mansion for the first time since the 1970s—but it would take a flawless candidate and an extremely favorable political climate.
Though the second variable remains beyond Democrats’ control, they argue state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton has the chops to win one of the deepest-red states in the Midwest. To do so, he’ll have to beat a formidable Republican candidate in Rep. Kristi Noem, whom nonpartisan analysts still consider the solid favorite.
“I’ve been doing South Dakota politics for 40 years, and this feels very different than any election since the 1978 race, when Democrats had a legitimate shot at winning,” said Steve Jarding, a Harvard University lecturer and South Dakota political strategist who helped deliver victories for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former Sen. Tim Johnson.
Jarding posits that name recognition, Sutton’s popularity as a bipartisan legislator, and Republican infighting sets up a uniquely favorable opportunity for Democrats, despite the fact that Democratic voters are heavily outnumbered by Republicans in the state.
Sutton’s early financial disclosures show him on track to raise more than any prior South Dakota Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and he confirmed his “conservative Democrat” brand by recruiting a longtime Republican, Michelle Lavallee, as his running mate for a unity ticket.
Sutton, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a rodeo accident, is a compelling figure. “His accident was only 10 years ago this last October,” said state Democratic Chair Ann Tornberg. “Overcoming that tragedy and then finishing college, getting married, and then deciding to run for the legislature in such a Republican district and then getting elected and serving for eight years—all of that happened within a 10-year time frame. … Billie is the very definition of true grit.”
Tornberg credits Sutton for the increased enthusiasm and turnout evident at the June party convention. She noted that out of 105 state-legislature races, 103 included Democratic candidates. “Just to put that in comparison, Republicans left eight spots open," she said. "We have never had higher recruiting numbers than the Republicans, at least in recent history in South Dakota.”
South Dakota Republicans acknowledge Sutton is a strong contender.
“Democrats have a good candidate, a very good candidate,” said Republican media consultant Casey Phillips, who worked on state Attorney General Marty Jackley’s primary campaign. “But Republicans have a 90,000-voter advantage, so I don’t know how the math works.”
Sutton hopes to make the math work by appealing to Republicans, independents, and Democrats—targeting farmers in West River who may be disillusioned by Noem.
“My strengths are in agriculture and in business,” Sutton said in an interview with National Journal, wearing a white cowboy hat, “and that’s the big difference between me and Congresswoman Noem—is that she’s been in D.C. for far too long and she hasn’t got anything done. In fact, I would contend she’s out of touch with what South Dakotans need.”
Democrats point to Noem’s track record on agriculture as evidence of weakness, especially in West River. “South Dakotans didn’t forgive her for leaving the Agriculture Committee, particularly because we have the one House member that you try to get on the Ag Committee and that’s hugely important for the state,” Jarding said. “And she got on it, but then voluntarily left it, and I think it left a bad taste in people’s mouth.”
Republicans say Democrats are grasping at straws with these arguments. “Kristi has been a stalwart defender of agriculture policy,” Noem campaign spokeswoman Brittany Comins said. “Once the 2014 farm bill was completed, Kristi looked at what was next that was going to impact not only agriculture but the rest of South Dakota, and that was tax reform. She got on the Ways and Means Committee and they wrote a tax-cuts bill that was built for farmers and ranchers … and when she made that move pretty much every agriculture group in the state backed that decision publicly.”
Noem, a rancher and farmer herself, has reason to be confident she will hold Republicans statewide. “In the primary, we won 59 of the 66 counties and it was statewide support, solid statewide support,” Comins said. “And so we are hopeful we’re going to see that same thing reflected.”
Noem “is not worried about [losing farm votes in West River],” Phillips averred. “Marty Jackley was from West River, and she beat him in West River among Republican primary voters, so she’s going to be strong there. Kristi Noem does not have to worry about losing West River to Billie Sutton.”
For Noem, the race is about what she calls her four pillars of protection—not raising taxes, not growing the government, keeping the federal government from interfering with state rights, and advocating transparency.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball recently moved this race from Solid R to Likely R, while The Cook Political Report has held it at Solid R. Jarding disagreed with this analysis. “I think the projections—and I say this with respect—I think the projections are based more on the historical context than the current situation,” he said.
However, presented with every argument offered up by the Democrats, Phillips said it comes down to this: “The key here is that Billie needed to have a Republican primary that was a long, drawn-out, beating-each-other-over-the-head-with-clubs sort of situation, and we had a little fight, but it was only about a week long and Kristi won handily.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Sutton is related to the Sutton family known for breeding rodeo horses and bulls.