Can this Democratic rodeo legend become South Dakota's next governor?
In 1979, the black-footed ferret was declared extinct. Then a woman named Lucille Hogg discovered a handful of the little critters — popularly known as prairie dog hunters, on account of their primary food source — sitting on her doorstep, carried from goodness knows where by her dog. Since then they have been bred successfully both in captivity and in the wild, most notably in South Dakota, where they nevertheless remain a federally designated endangered species.
Democrats in the Mount Rushmore State are faring somewhat worse than America's only indigenous species of ferret.
Democrats have not held the governor's mansion since 1979, and no Democrat has ever served as governor for more than two terms in the 129-year history of the state. Tom Daschle's Senate majority leadership feels like a lifetime ago. The dates of George McGovern's famous tenure as one of South Dakota's senators, from 1963 to 1981, might as well have B.C. after them. But life, as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, finds a way. What about Democrats?
Nationally speaking, it is difficult to say whether Democrats would consider a victory by Billie Sutton, a populist insurgent who has won the endorsement of several major newspapers, a real win. The anti-abortion pro-gun rancher and former rodeo star doesn't seem to care very much what the rest of his party has to say — about anything. Even liberals in his own state ask themselves whether he is running against them as much as he is against his opponent, Kristi Noem, a four-term Republican congresswoman.
Because there has not been a single independent poll it is almost impossible to speak authoritatively about the state of the South Dakota governor's race, which Cook Political Report is labeling a "toss-up." That is one reason it is one of the most fascinating contests in our $4 billion midterm election season. It is also one of the most refreshing ones. Both candidates are compelling speakers from humble backgrounds who have known genuine hardship and risen above it. Each is about a thousand times more likable than your average elected official.
Sutton grew up on a ranch and did rodeo in college at the University of Wyoming, where his all-time points record still stands. Afterward he rode professionally, and was ranked as one of the 30 best rodeo riders in the world until October 2007, when a horse named Ruby bucked him off and left him paralyzed from the waist down. After that he worked briefly as a banker before returning to the ranching business, where he succeeded in spite of his handicap, before entering state politics, where he has been a popular state senator in a state where officially registered independents outnumber Democrats. Sutton is only 34 years old. He would be the youngest governor in South Dakota history.
Meanwhile, Noem grew up on a farm, won the South Dakota Snow Queen competition in high school, married at age 20, and left college two years later to help out at her family's farm after her father was killed in a horrific accident. She did not return to finish her college degree until after being elected to Congress for the first time, earning a B.A. from South Dakota State University in 2011. She made her way up by serving in local government and the state legislature, where she worked her way up to the position of assistant majority leader before running for the U.S. House in 2010. If she wins, she would be her state's first female governor.
Sutton is running on issues that allow him to appeal to the common sense of South Dakotans who, while alienated from the liberal social policy of the national Democratic Party, understand that affordable health care is better than the opposite, that it is possible to be a prudent steward of the environment without being some kind of tree-hugging progressive goofus who cares more about crane habitats than about the livelihood of actual human beings, and that Native Americans deserve a fairer shake. The candidate's own father is blunt about the fact that in order to win his son "is going to need a lot of Trump supporters." For him this is a matter of asking voters to consider whether the president's promises — to help farmers, to lower the cost of medical care — have actually panned out, not of screaming for impeachment or putting on a pink hat.
This has put Noem in a difficult position. Her most salient criticism of Sutton involves reminding her fellow South Dakotans to "remember that Billie Sutton is a Democrat," for whatever that's worth. But even she has admitted that Sutton is "the most talented candidate they have had in 30 years," adding that "the story of his accident and his tenacity in that situation really resonates with the people of South Dakota."
If Sutton manages to beat Noem in two weeks, it will be an astonishing upset in a state where President Trump's total percent of the vote share nearly doubled Hillary Clinton's. It will also be a lesson to Democrats about how the West — and red states throughout the country — can be won.