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During a summer of discontent for some Republicans, Sutton poll offers hope for underdog Democrat

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Billie Sutton talks polling, campaign odds at Rapid City reception

It wasn’t what I expected from Justin Brasell. Not at all.

I sent an email to the widely traveled campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kristi Noem recently asking for a response to internal campaign polling released by Democratic candidate Billie Sutton. The poll showed Noem with a slim 4-point lead — 46 percent to 42 percent with 13 percent undecided.

When I saw those numbers, I thought: “Wow, that’s pretty good. Surprisingly good.”

For a Democrat. Running for governor. In South Dakota. These days.

So I expected Brasell to offer some form of the classic rebuttal, dismissing the poll as biased and imprecisely handled, implying that the polling company was either incompetent or biased or both and insinuating or simply stating that the Noem campaign was getting far different results with a better polling firm.

Instead, I got this:

“It’s funny that Democrats are excited about a poll that shows their candidate losing,” Brasell said.

Losing, yes, but not by much. And certainly not getting walloped. Losing, in fact, within the margin of error on the poll, which is admittedly a snapshot in time during a long campaign. Still, though, it was kind of a “Wow” thing for Democratic state senator in his first run for statewide office against a formidable four-term Republican congresswoman in a heavily Republican state.

Brasell had something to say about that, too, by the way. And it’s worth reading, in just a minute.

First, a reminder: We should always be at least a little skeptical of polling numbers done for and released by a campaign. And I was with plenty skeptical of Sutton’s. Still they were intriguing, and not wildly out of line. Plus, Brasell’s response made me think Sutton’s polling was probably not much different from what the Noem campaign was getting.

Otherwise, he would have said so.

Old Hand Sioux Falls Republican Vouches for Polling Firm


Then I had a chat with Rolly Samp, a Sioux Falls lawyer, long-time political adviser and lifetime registered Republican who considers himself “more of a populist than probably anything.” Samp vouched for the credibility of Sutton’s polling firm, Anzalone Liszt Grove, as a professional, well-experienced polling firm likely to get accurate data.

Anzalone Liszt Grove Research is a Washington, D.C. firm that bills itself as “the premier Democratic polling firm in the United States.” The big hit for the firm was that it handled polling for the Barack Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

“There’s no bones about it, they’re a Democratic firm,” Samp said. “But a few years ago I was senior adviser in a race down in Omaha, which was bipartisan, and I used them and was thrilled (with their work).”

Thrilling the soon-to-be-75-year-old Samp is no small feat. He started his political work coming out of college with six years in a South Dakota field office of Republican Congressman Ben Reifel. Reifel was a Rosebud Tribe member who was the first Lakota elected to the U.S House of Representatives, where he served five terms.

Samp was also chief of staff for Gov. Frank Farrar in the late 1960s, where he also served as the governor’s lawyer and speech writer, including State of the State speeches. Which takes us to a reasonable point of blogging departure, or what some might call another Woster digression. If you’re able, grab a cup of coffee and a snack and follow along.

During his time with Farrar, Rolly Samp also did the research and recommendation that helped Farrar decide to commute the death sentence of Thomas James White Hawk to life in prison without parole.  White Hawk, who enrolled at the University of South Dakota as a pre-med student, in 1967 admitted to and was sentenced to death for the murder of a Vermilion jeweler James Yeado.

Fearing an explosion of emotions among Native Americans if White Hawk were executed, Farrar — who generally supported capital punishment— reduced the death sentence to life in prison And that was where White Hawk died in 1997. First, though, he studied Native American history and culture, the law and auto mechanics.

Samp considered his work in averting the White Hawk execution one of his more notable accomplishments of his time with Farrar, who lost a re-election bid in 1970 to the last elected Democratic governor of South Dakota, Dick Kneip.

All good stuff. But Samp’s longest, closest political relationship was with four-term Republican Gov. Bill Janklow. Samp ran Janklow’s successful campaign for state attorney general in 1974, then served as a senior advisor to Janklow for the next two decades. He said they “meshed so well” because they both had strong populist streaks that connected with a long-standing strain of independent thinking in South Dakota.

Sutton would do well to make sure he seeks a similar connection if he is to have a solid chance at upsetting the favored Republican, Samp said.

“In essence, I think there’s a populist message there,” Samp said. “It’s that ‘I’m Billie Sutton. I’m a South Dakotan first. There wasn’t room for me in the Republican Party. And I’m privileged to be a South Dakota Democrat. And I’ll support individuals in office in either party when I think they’re right. And I’ll opposed them when they’re wrong.”

Samp believes a key campaign problem for Sutton might come from the more liberal wing of his own party. Too much rhetoric from them and connections to Sutton could turn off Republican voters who might be inclined to vote for Sutton otherwise, Samp said.

“His greatest obstacle is people around him who are passionate about bashing Trump and shouting about scandal in South Dakota. They’re not in the mainstream of political thinking,” Samp said. “There are people who I’d call the very liberal Democrats who think bashing Trump and bashing Republican administrations is a winner. And the polling doesn’t indicate that.”

Samp looks at a lot of polling, and has for years.

The anti-establishment — or “drain the swamp” — cry of the 2016 presidential campaign helped Donald Trump win the key states needed in the Electoral College system to take the presidency, even though he lost the popular vote. And Sutton is running in part on a pledge to bring more accountability and honestly to South Dakota state government.

But that message shouldn’t be overplayed, Samp said.

“My analysis of the Sutton race, and I know this from the polling, is that I’ve not seen in South Dakota a big mood for change — the message of ‘throw the bums out’ will not move a lot of Republican voters his way,” Samp said.

Pushing the Need for Change without Offending Republicans


Some might disagree with that. There has been a groundswell of populist-style energy in public campaigns for ballot issues seeking to reform government and impose more stringent ethical standards. And two high-profile scandals involving misuse of public money — EB-5 and Gear Up — inspired efforts at reform and also calls for change.

But Sutton does have to be careful in how he works to move Republican voters his way. Because he needs them. Badly. Last I checked, South Dakota had 252,306 registered Republicans, compared to 156,367 Democrats — which is about 50,000 less than Democrats had here in South Dakota at their registration peak. There are also 122,643 registered voters with independent or no-party affiliation status.

To win, Sutton needs to hold his Democrats, get more than his share of independents and dig into the Republican ranks substantially.

Samp thinks Sutton has to appeal to a pool of about 80,000 Republicans who might be willing to consider his message and even support him. Many of those Republicans voted for Attorney General Mary Jackley in his losing primary race against Noem. And many also voted for Donald Trump. So,Sutton must take care as he holds his base and reaches out to Jackley voters not to be seen as bashing Trump, Samp said.

I tested Sutton’s Trump response at a candidate reception here in Rapid City recently. Sutton was pretty deft, or perhaps just being himself, in avoiding any strong criticism of Trump.

“He’s the president. I would work with him where I could, where it benefitted South Dakota. And I’d disagree with him where it didn’t,” Sutton said.

Asked about Trump’s often-mean-spirited rhetoric and regular departures from factual reality, Sutton limited his reply to saying that Trump's style is certain not his own style, and he wouldn’t condone it. Nor did he take the opportunity to condemn it specifically.

So far, Sutton is doing OK with conservatives and Trump voters according to his recent polling. Forty four percent of conservative-leaning voters had a favorable opinion of Sutton, with 23 percent unfavorable. Among those who like Trump, Sutton’s numbers were 40 percent favorable and 24 percent unfavorable.

Sutton believes he’s making gains with voters that show in the polling. He points to a 9-point gain since polling in October showed Noem with a 13-point lead. If that’s really the trend and it continues, we could be in for a real fight heading into Nov. 6.

Along with the 42-to-46-percent comparison, Sutton’s poll also reflected an edge to Sutton of 48 percent preference to 42 percent for Noem and 11 percent undecided, when “balanced profile information on both candidates” was presented. I don’t have a clue what that means or how the "balanced" information was presented. But Sutton thinks it represents potential for gains for him through advertising and public appearances.

I first heard a summary of the polling during a meet-and-greet my wife, Mary, and I attended. In the interest of full disclosure, she wrote a $500 check to his campaign on our joint account. If you'd like to know more about that, here's my Rapid City Journal column from Sunday.

Sutton touted -- gently, which is about as aggressively as the retired-by-injury bronc rider seems to tout anything about himself -- that he’s within the margin of error according to the poll and he hasn’t started advertising yet.

Fair point. And that’s good news for Sutton, as far as it goes. But it’s also reason for a reality check: Noem isn’t advertising, either. So Sutton hasn’t yet been hit by Noem campaign messaging or by the third party ads against him that are likely to show up.

Campaign Advertising Wars Set to Begin


Brasell is a tough, seasoned campaign manager with experience in South Dakota that includes past campaign management for John Thune and running the recent Noem campaign for governor through the successful GOP primary campaign against Attorney General Marty Jackley. Brasell began some of the general-election campaign rhetoric in responding to my questions about the Anzalone Liszt polling.

“With nearly a decade spent in Pierre politics, Billie Sutton is one of the state’s top-ranking Democrats, carrying the torch for liberal policies like massive tax hikes,” Brasell wrote in his reply. “He also chose to back Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, under whom we would have never seen tax reforms signed into law, nor would we have had the opportunity to put two conservatives on the Supreme Court.”

This seems like another good point of departure for a guy like me. So I’d suggest, by way of digression, that there should have only been one opportunity to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice so far in Donald Trump’s term.

Ten months before he left office, President Barack Obama nominated well-qualified chief federal Judge Merrick Garland to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, who had died a month earlier. But Republican leadership in the Senate refused to act on what appeared to be a completely legitimate, timely nomination, delaying action to fill Scalia’s spot until after the November, 2016 general election. They hoped to get a Republican president, and did, along with an additional appointment to the high court they probably didn't deserve.

But that’s another issue, and one Sutton doesn’t have to worry about. He does have to worry about a possible backlash by Republicans and even some independents over his support for his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, and also possibly his party’s nominee in 2008 and 2012.

The Clinton-Obama factor could be relevant for some Republican voters inclined to vote for Sutton. I tried it on a conservative West River rancher I know who loves Donald Trump and also plans to vote for Billie Sutton. He told me once he believed that Sutton was “the only candidate who can drain the swamp — the one we have in Pierre.”

When I reminded him that Sutton had supported Clinton and not Trump in 2016, he had to pause and consider that. He said it was a fair point. But he still concluded that Sutton was the most likely to bring change.

I emailed the Sutton campaign for a response to Brasell’s statement on Billie being an insider and a Clinton supporter. But I got a call back form the candidate instead. He was traveling with family to an event in Eagle Butte, where his mother grew up and his maternal grandmother taught school for almost 50 years.

“They said you had some questions, so I figured I’d just call,” Sutton said over the chatter of his son, Liam. “I guess I’d say in response (to Brasell) that I don’t think anybody buys that kind of rhetoric. I just think this is politics as usual. This is why people are frustrated, especially the Washington-style politics we’re seeing with this kind of rhetoric.”

In a news release accompanying the poll results, Sutton said: “It’s clear my message of common sense and bipartisan leadership is resonating with Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike. My plans for a more trustworthy government, better educational opportunities, and stronger economic and workforce development efforts have South Dakotans paying attention to our message of coming together around our shared values.”

Sure. Of course. But back to Clinton, who even more than Obama could be an issue for some independent voters and many Republicans. The emails. Benghazi. The foundation. All that stuff, you know.

The Noem camp knows it and plans to continue using it. And I assume the Sutton camp knows it even better and is looking for ways to address it. If not, they should be. And as much as I like the "that's just Washington-style politics" response, I'm not sure that'll be enough.

Clinton got hammered by Trump in South Dakota in 2016, following more respectable showings in previous cycles by Barack Obama here, especially in 2008 when he got almost 45 percent of the vote to 53 percent by Republican nominee John McCain.

I’ll be interested to see how Noem and Brasell use Obama and especially Clinton in their messaging. There's plenty to play with. And it'll probably be more interesting to see how third-party groups -- and advertising experts whose creativity often exceeds their integrity -- use that stuff. Depending on the group and nature of its attacks, I might even be more than interested. I might be appalled. But I’m hoping for better.

Sutton plans to hold onto his populist-style message, whatever comes at him, fair or unfair, nasty or not.

“It’s time we figure out a way we come together that isn’t based on party affiliation,” he said.

Funny, I actually believe Sutton means that. Beyond that, however, it’s essential for him to get Republican and independent voters to believe he means it, too, and would govern accordingly. Republicans who voted for Jackley in the primary could be key there.

Attack ads by and for the Noem campaign near the primary election were harsh, one-sided and effective. Jackley never found or wouldn’t use a proportional response, and the attack hurt — not just in the final vote tally but in the wounds left in loyal Jackley supporters.

So What Will the Jackley Voters do Come November?


The Sutton poll indicated that 31 percent of Jackley voters in the primary were supporting Sutton now, while 49 percent were supporting Noem and 20 percent are undecided.

Among Republican voters in general who responded to the poll, a lower-but-still-significant 21 percent favored Sutton. And among unaffiliated voters, the poll showed Sutton leading Noem 54 percent to 35 percent.

Solid numbers? We’ll see.

Right now, Noem must be worried that she's under 50 percent in polling. You'd think a successful Republican would be closer to 55 percent, or higher. On Monday, Republican U.S. House candidate Dusty Johnson released polling for his campaign that showed him at 54 percent, to 33 percent for Democrat Tim Bjorkman with 10 percent undecided.

The Bjorkman campaign followed by releasing its own polling showing the Johnson lead closer to 10 points.

Again, that's the internal polling of campaigns. So treat it as such, which doesn't mean disallow it completely.

Back to the governor's race, if Noem is at 46 percent or thereabouts, that's good news for Sutton, as far as it goes. Some Republicans I know who like and support Sutton worry that holding the Republican support he has will be tough. Part of the concern is that while some Republicans might allow their affections to wander a bit during campaigns, they usually come home to vote in November.

In particular, Jackley supporters might let their anger simmer through a summer of discontent. But by the time autumn leaves fall will they be working their way back to the Republican nominee — whether they like her or not? It's big question fo Sutton, and Noem.

And some Republicans don’t like Noem, for reasons beyond Jackley and the primary.

“Noem isn’t as widely liked among Republicans as say, John Thune is, or as Dennis Daugaard has been,” one Republican told me. “There’s just a certain percentage of Republicans who don’t care for her.”

Sutton hopes those feeling carry through to November. And he questions the idea that his support among some Jackley supporters will fade as they somehow shape-shift into Noem supporters.

“I’ve reached out to a lot of them (Jackley supporters) early on. And a lot of them have committed their support,” he said. “That being the case, I don’t think I’ll lose those folks. And they’re also folks who are talking to their friends. It’s a grassroots movement.”

I hear from people in that movement all the time. Republicans who I would consider mainstream or moderate members of the party tell me they support Noem. Some tell me they plan to donate to him or already have. Some say they might endorse him publicly.


Enthusiastic about Sutton, but on the sly -- for now


But that’s all going to have to happen soon. And a recent meeting I had with a long-time Republican here in Rapid City makes me wonder. He and I were talking at McDonald’s and he asked if I was going to the latest Black Hills Press Club and Forum to hear Sutton speak. ‘

I said I was, and he said with a grin that he’d see me there.

“So you’re a Sutton supporter?” I asked.

He grinned, nodded and started to speak, then stopped and looked around to see who was nearby. Only then did he enthusiastically say: “Oh, yeah, I think Billie's great!”

Makes you wonder how many Republicans will skip the look around and shout their support publicly and on joint checking accounts.

Whatever the numbers, Sutton wants and needs them.

“I appreciate their support, and I’ll try to get it from anybody in South Dakota who wants to build a stronger South Dakota.”

That’s the message Samp says Sutton must focus on.

“Billie Sutton needs to hold that Jackley vote and the Trump vote in order to win,” Samp said. “So every time a very liberal person comes out and bashes somebody, they’re putting him farther from winning. That doesn’t fit his image. He’s a nice guy, very open to everyone. He’s not an ideologue. He’s more of a populist, sort of Bill-Janklow, West-River style get it done, and we don’t care who gets the credit.”

He’ll be portrayed much differently by the sophisticated Noem campaign team, whose candidate has natural gifts for tough-but-effective campaigning and whose manager know how to package them.

Noem is a four-term Republican congresswoman, after all, who served two terms in the South Dakota House and was elected to a leadership role there before defeating Democratic incumbent Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010. So Noem doesn’t know what political defeat is like. But she kinows how to win. And she has earned the right to be the presumed favorite in this race, which is exactly what I consider her to be.

Sutton’s “Washington style” insinuation about Noem and her campaign team follows a play by Jackley in the primary, implying that the congresswoman has “gone Washington” during her eight years in the U.S. House.

It didn’t seem to work for Jackley. And it’s a difficult charge to make stick to a farm-country wife and mother of three who is back home on the farmstead in rural Hamlin County each weekend and during congressional breaks and recesses, trying to squeeze family obligations and pleasures in around congressional and campaign chores.

Noem portrays herself as someone who can go to Pierre and make changes. And despite her obvious credentials and standing with the party, she is seen by some as a bit of an outsider in the mostly white-male power base in Pierre. And she’s not afraid to cross the lines of GOP custom and deference for past administrations, which is part of the reason some Republicans don’t like her much.

As she promotes her own capacity to bring change, her campaign is attacking Sutton’s contention that he is a change-maker coming in from outside the Pierre power structure.

Which takes us back to the first line is Brasell’s response to my email, where he writes that it is “laughable the way they're so desperate to portray the Democratic State Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton as some sort of Pierre outsider.”

That’s a legitimate point. Sutton certainly is an insider in terms of his place in the Democratic leadership among elected officials in Pierre. He has served in eight legislative sessions and been involved in some big issue, including a tax hike for a pay raise for teachers and property tax relief that was also supported by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and many Republicans.

But Sutton is also a Democratic leader in a state where Democrats haven’t held either house of the Legislature since the early 1990s and haven’t had the governor’s chair since 1978. So he’s far outside the power structure in Pierre, and can easily and honestly pitch himself as just that.

As for Brasell, he likes his candidate’s standing and chances, regardless of what any snapshot-in-time poll might show.

“Regardless of this or any poll, we remain confident that the majority of South Dakotans want a candidate who embodies their values of less government, lower taxes and more accountability and control, which Kristi Noem uniquely does,” he said.

So, as the general-election message machines fire up, it makes sense to consider the Sutton poll and its place in campaign predictions.

I said last Thursday on In the Moment with Lori Walsh on public radio something I’ve said before: We live in an age here in South Dakota where a really good Democratic candidate for governor can be expected to get 42 percent or 43 percent in a race against a solid Republican.

Noem is a very solid Republican, as she proved most recently against Jackley. I never sell her short in a campaign.

And Billie Sutton is really good Democratic candidate for governor. So in a race where the bulk of voters are likely to be pretty firmly set on their choice by now, it’s not too surprising that Sutton is polling at 42 percent. And, understanding that any individual poll is simply a snapshot in time, that’s a good place for him to be three months before Election Day.

That’s important, but it’s not nearly as important as what happens next. And a lot has to happen for Sutton, in ways that increase that percentage. Because while 42 percent is good news now, it’s just an admirable Democratic loss come Nov. 6.

Which wouldn’t be all that notable.