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South Dakota may elect first Democrat for governor in 40 years

By Jessie Higgins
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South Dakota may elect first Democrat for governor in 40 years
Billie Sutton is the Democratic candidate for governor in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Sutton for South Dakota Governor

Nov. 2 (UPI) -- A super tight race for governor in South Dakota means the state could end up with a Democrat at the helm for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Recent polls show the race between state Sen. Billie Sutton, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican, could go either way. This has shocked many in the deeply red state.

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As both candidates stump hard in these final days before voting ends Tuesday, analysts are trying to understand how a Democrat could be so close to the governor's chair.

"I was honestly stunned by how close this is," said David Wiltse, a political science professor at South Dakota State University. "After the primary, I thought it was a shoe-in for Kristi Noem."

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He was not alone. In a state where only 29 percent of voters are registered Democrats, and the last Democratic governor left office in 1979, few expected Sutton to do well.

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After the primary, Noem appeared to be running away with the election. But in the late summer, Sutton started to close the gap, said David Earnest, chairman of the political science department at the University of South Dakota.

A poll released Oct. 24 by the Argus Leader and KELO TV showed the race was a dead heat. Forty-five percent of people surveyed said they would vote for Noem, and 45 percent supported Sutton. An updated poll released Thursday showed Noem three points ahead -- still within the poll's 4.5 percentage point margin of error. The race is a tossup.

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There's no single explanation for it. Political analysts point to different factors: The agricultural economy in South Dakota is suffering. Noem, who was elected to Congress in 2011, is viewed as a Washington insider. Sutton is simply a strong candidate.

Both have compelling personal stories.

Sutton grew up on a South Dakota ranch, and grew up to be a professional bronc rider for the rodeo -- one of the top 30 in the world. Then, at age 23, his horse flipped over on top of him. He was paralyzed instantly.

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"I remember the feeling of loss when I realized everything will be different now," Sutton said, in a quote that appears on his campaign website.

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Sutton's campaign has used tragic story to highlight his determination to not let it hold him back. He went on to be an investment executive at a South Dakota bank before being elected to the state Senate in 2010.

"He's been able to speak to the identity of South Dakota," Wiltse said.

Noem's story is also compelling. Her father was killed in a farming accident when she was in college. She left school to come home and run the family farm. She got into politics, spurred by farm taxes, running for the state House of Representatives in 2006. She finished her degree while serving and was later elected to Congress.

Noem is a strong conservative, but one of the big things in Sutton's favor is he's fairly conservative, too. On many key issues, he resembles his Republican rival -- he opposes abortion and supports the Second Amendment. And he's chosen a Republican for a running mate.

"If he grew up in another state, he could have been a Republican," Wiltse said. "But Democrats tend to be more conservative out here and across the prairie states."

The issues on which Sutton takes a more liberal view tend to be less controversial in the state, like increasing funding for education.

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"I'm registered as I am because I believe in fighting for the middle class," Sutton said in a recent debate. "I believe in fighting for the working class. I believe that education and investments in education can pull you up and give you opportunities that you would have never had. I believe that access to healthcare coverage -- affordable coverage -- gives you opportunities to succeed in this state."

The message is wooing the many of the state's more moderate Republicans to switch sides.

"He's dividing the Republican base," Earnest said.

Another factor is the state of the agricultural economy in South Dakota. Farmers in that region were hit hard this year because of the high tariffs on American soy in China -- a result of the Trump administration's trade war.

"Historically, when the agricultural economy is in distress, the state tends to vote Democrat," Earnest said.

But analysts warn that this race does not signal that South Dakota is leaning more liberal. This is an anomaly, they say.

"This is not part of a blue wave," Wiltse said. "There's just some idiosyncrasies that lined up in favor of Sutton."

Wiltse still thinks Noem has a greater chance at winning, as is hinted in the polls tilting slightly in her favor as Election Day nears.

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After the Oct. 24 poll showed the two neck-in-neck, both candidates ratcheted up their campaigns.

In one week, Noem's campaign received around $802,000, including sizable donations from the Republican Governors Association, a PAC organized by President Donald Trump, and the South Dakota Corn Growers, according the to the Argus Leader.

That same week, Sutton reported around $544,000 from Democratic Action and several other national PACs, among other donors, the newspaper reported.

The money is being used to run multiple ads, many of them of the attack. Both candidates are traveling around the state in these last few days to rally support.

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