So, Billie Sutton got his campaign groove on in Camp Crook? That might mean something to governor's race.

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Billie Sutton greets a supporter at a early voting rally in Rapid City

Certain things impress me more than others about the Billie Sutton campaign.

Sometimes they seem to be fairly little things. Or little gatherings.

Take the 75 people who turned out recently for a Sutton campaign event, in Camp Crook.
It’s not a monster crowd. It’s a little gathering. But it’s also Camp Crook, South Dakota, population 66. And it’s way up there in Harding County just this side of the Montana line, where Democrats tend to be about as common as cornfields.

I don’t know how much money Sutton raised at Camp Crook. I’m just impressed that 75 people showed up. It’s yet another sign that this Democratic candidate for governor is a bit different —  certainly as different as any we’ve seen since Lars Herseth barely lost to George Mickelson in 1986, or maybe even since Dick Kneip won the last of his three consecutive terms in 1974.

Also different is the polling taken on Sept. 18 — a little over six weeks weeks from Election Day — and released last week that shows Sutton with a lead over the favorite in the race, Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem. That polling for the Sutton campaign showed the Democrat at 45 percent to 42 percent for Noem, with 3 percent for Libertarian Kurt Evans and 10 percent undecided.

I’m going to consider this a valid poll until told otherwise in a convincing way by someone, such as someone in the Noem campaign. I took that position in July when polling for the Sutton campaign by the same company showed him at 42 percent to 46 percent for Noem. And nobody at the Noem campaign disputed the results.

Sutton called that 4-point deficit in July, which was within the margin of error for the poll, a statistical dead head. So you have to say that his 3-point lead is the same thing, even though Sutton is calling it a lead.

Whatever you call it, it’s an impressive thing for a Democrat to tout this late in a run for governor. And it shows clear gains from a poll done by the same company in October of 2017, that showed Noem at 53 percent and Sutton at 40 percent.

The most recent polling also came after Noem started running her own ads, which lately included one that compared Sutton to Hillary Clinton and alleged he’s a tax-loving Democrat.

There’ll be more of that to come from Noem, who has never been afraid to take a swing at her opponent. How much you can swing at someone with Sutton’s life story without smacking yourself in the nose is an open question that could be answered soon.

Meanwhile, Sutton refrains from any sign of giddiness at the polling, noting the other morning during an early voting rally in downtown Rapid City that “there’s still 10 percent undecided. So we’ve got a ways to go.”

True that. And “a ways” is always farther in South Dakota for a Democrat.

It’s obvious that undecideds are a big deal in a close race. So are those on one side or the other offering support for a candidate that is soft, and open to change. And typically here in South Dakota these days, you can expect most undecideds to break for the Republican late in the campaign. You can also expect at least some of those who flirted with a Democratic vote enough to show up on a survey to end up voting for the Republican.

Popular political wisdom here suggests that “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.”

Which brings us back to Camp Crook, and Republicans who are falling out of party line and into line for Sutton. He has been leaning heavy on Republicans in his polling, trying to get a sense for the leanings of voters in this Republican-dominated state. He said 50 percent of those surveyed in his last poll were Republicans, which is slightly heavier than the breakdown of Republicans, Democrats and independents in South Dakota.

To win, Sutton needs to get about a quarter of the Republican voters this election. Then he needs at least 60 percent of Independents, although 65 percent would be better. And of course he needs to hold just about every one of his party faithful that turn out to vote.

There will be a few lost votes within his base because of Sutton’s pro-life position on abortion. I was speaking to a strong Sutton supporter the other day who said she is still working on one of her friends who is struggling to get past that one issue.

“I talked to her this morning and she said she’s just not there yet,” the woman said.

Of course, the obvious question is: “If you're struggling with Sutton’s position on abortion, don’t you struggle a lot more with Noem’s?”

But the litmus-test woman isn’t talking about actually voting for Noem. She’s talking about not voting at all in that particular race. That’s the kind of response from some in the Democrats base in 2010 that helped Noem beat Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who’s now the president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls.

Sutton doesn’t have some of the baggage with the Democratic base that Herseth Sandlin carried into that 2010 race, much of which was based on her opposition to the Affordable Care Act as it was constructed and approved. Turned out, some of her concerns were realized in problems with “Obamacare” and its implementation. But her “no” vote hurt during her 2010 reelection race.

I wouldn’t expect that kind of impact on Sutton because of his abortion stance. And I’d expect most of those wayward Democrats to come home, Republican like, on Nov. 6.  I’d also expect Sutton to carry the strong majority of independent voters and a solid chunk of Republicans.

Solid enough? We’ll see.

Sutton is expecting a barrage of negative ads from Noem in the closing weeks of the campaign. And you can expect to see and hear the comparisons to Hillary Clinton. It’ll be interesting to see how Sutton responds.

Issues like Noem’s attendance record in Congress and her effectiveness — like say, taking her congressional salary, totaling it up for eight years of work and figuring in how many of her own bills she has managed to get passed — are areas you might seen explored. That vote-count thing is a bit unfair, of course, because most of the work a congressional member does involves not passing a single piece of her own legislation but rather adding to and subtracting from larger bills that directly affect their constituents.

To say nothing of constituent service that can be more than helpful. It can be life altering or business affirming for South Dakota residents.

It’s harder to explain all that in a campaign. So the “she only past one or two bills” is a pretty good hit. Or can be.

I also noted today that the Sutton campaign slammed Noem for “taking a two week vacation from her job in Washington” with the next Farm Bill still unsettled and the old Farm Bill expiring this week. Sutton Campaign Manager Suzanne Jones Pranger said Noem broke a promise to South Dakotans by leaving D.C. for a break without getting a farm bill approved before the previous one expired.

I don’t remember Noem actually promising to get the Farm Bill passed before it expired. But she said months ago that she was confident that would happen, rather than the short-term extension expected because of the impasse.

Whatever criticism comes her way from the Sutton camp, Noem will hit back. But if she gets really negative, you might see some of her soft support get softer and not “come home” on election day, depending at least in part on how Sutton plays his response.

A Republican buddy of mine who likes Sutton but is supporting Noem says Sutton has “kind of a Rounds aura” right now, similar to the nice-guy appeal the Mike Rounds had among Republican voters in the 2002 governor’s primary. Rounds was considered the candidate likely to finish third, but he rose to the top with a positive message as presumed leaders Mark Barnett and Steve Kirby seemed to slug themselves out.

As for Sutton. Well, you can’t just take punch after punch and not swing back. But if the nice guy in the cowboy hat is perceived as a little bit mean in an ad or two, what will that do to his support?

In general, Noem had better ads than Marty Jackley during the primary run last spring. More professionally produced. More effective. But so far Sutton’s ads have been better than Noem’s , which are basically retreads of several primary advertisements.

Sutton’s introductory ad with his life story — talking about how he ended up in a wheelchair, and how his friend and family helped him move on toward different life goals — was really effective and ran for weeks. His follow up comparing Burke to Pierre is good, too, even though it could lead some Pierre residents to take offense at a shot that is really aimed at the government there, not the community.

And finally he got his Republicans-for-Sutton ad on the air recently. The only problem with the ad, as I told him the other day, is I didn’t know any of the Republicans.

“Where was Meierhenry?” I asked. “Where was Volk? Where are some of the old guard Republicans people might remember?”

Sutton said he has contributions from both Mark Meierhenry, a former two-term state attorney general, and  Dave Volk, a former five-term state treasurer who also served as secretary of commerce in the Bill Janklow cabinet.

Sutton wouldn’t say whether Volk and Meierhenry — who comes from Sutton’s home country down around Burke and Gregory — would endorse him in campaign ads. But such things matter in a state like this, and in a race that still seems, amazingly enough, competitive -- very competitive.

Sutton picked up some checks at the early voting event here in downtown Rapid City. And he smiled when I asked how fundraising was going.

“We’ll have enough to get our message out,” he said.

It’s a message he’ll be sending out to all voters, or course, but especially to independents and those Republicans — including those hearty, typically conservative Harding County souls in and around Camp Crook — that he’ll badly need come Nov. 6.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.