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Opposing abortion: Sutton's style gentle, Noem's anything but

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Officers for South Dakota Right to Life broke with their tradition — or, they might argue, began a new one — in endorsing Kristi Noem for governor.

It really wasn’t surprising, that endorsement. Noem has a straight-A rating with Right to Life, based on past votes and regular surveys the anti-abortion group sends to elected officials. But Democrat Billie Sutton has had A ratings himself, based on votes during a given year in the South Dakota Legislature. He also has had Bs and Cs.

South Dakota Right to Life President Fred Deutsch said Sutton’s voting “while positive for a Democrat, is inconsistent. Some years he was really good and other years not so good, whereas Noem has consistently been pro-life.”

It was actually a fairly easy choice for the organization to make, Deutsch said.

“We’re grateful for Billie’s pro-life voting record. No one is denying his voting record is mostly pro-life,” he said. “However, the endorsement process requires comparisons, and by every metric of measurement, Noem is clearly the more pro-life candidate, worthy of our endorsement.”

Noem’s solid connections with the organization don’t stop at her votes.  According to the South Dakota Right to Life website, Noem’s daughter, Kassidy, holds a “Youth Outreach” position with the organization. That’s apparently a volunteer role tied primarily to the organization’s annual convention later this month in Hartford.

But Sutton has his pro-life credentials, too. Even if somewhat “inconsistent” in his voting, according to SDRLT measurements, Sutton is an old-school-style South Dakota Democrat in good standing with Right to Life because of his votes and stated opposition to abortion.

That’s a double-edged campaign sword for the Democrat. It might weaken his support among strongly pro-choice voters. But it also makes the choice in this general-election race for governor more complicated than it might have been in the past for voters with strong anti-abortion beliefs.

And the competition between Noem and Sutton is closer than your typical clash between a Republican and a Democrat in a race for statewide office, at least in recent years. So each key issue matters more than it might have in other years.

That might lead a suspicious person to suspect the new tradition of endorsements by South Dakota Right to Life was begun to give Noem a boost in a competitive race. Deutsch said that while the actual endorsement is new, the state organization has long been involved in issuing grades of the voting records of elected officials.

“The organization has a long history of compiling voting records to assign grades for established lawmakers, and likewise a long history of compiling statements from candidates about beliefs pertaining to abortion,” Deutsch said. “Our national organization also has a long history of endorsing candidates.”

Deutsch said Sutton also hurt himself by not filling out a questionnaire on issues that was sent to gubernatorial, congressional and attorney general candidates.

“And it said on the questionnaire that if you don’t answer it, it won’t look favorably on you,” Deutsch said. “So Billie didn’t answer the questionnaire. That’s a strike against him.”

The Sutton campaign has had little to say publicly about the organization’s endorsement of Noem. When I contacted them for comment, Campaign Manager Suzanne Jones Pranger set this by email:

“Senator Sutton is pro-life. His voting record demonstrates that. And any claim otherwise is untrue.”

But this is a touchy issue for Sutton, given the reality that many if not most of his Democratic supporters are pro-choice. And Sutton must work with those pro-choice people and organizations, and hold on to their support, leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

He was apparently doing some of that last month during a fundraiser in Sioux Falls that the Noem campaign said was by Planned Parenthood and Jones Pranger said was hosted by a grassroots organization called South Dakota Forward. Todd Epp of KELO Radio in Sioux Falls reported that the event was hosted at the home of a woman who works for Planned Parenthood.

The South Dakota Forward Facebook page shows a sequence of updates promoting Sutton and Sutton events. It also states that the organization works “to champion candidates, initiatives, and ideas that aim to cultivate a more equal and inclusive state for all South Dakotans.”

There was clearly suspicion in the Sutton campaign over the new endorsement policy and the 2018 candidate survey by South Dakota Right to Life. That showed in a comment shared by Deutsch that came from MacKenzie Huber of the Sutton Campaign:

The comment said in part: “Because Right to Life has never before endorsed a gubernatorial candidate and we have word that Congresswoman Noem has already been invited to speak at your convention in September before the endorsement process has even been made, the campaign has decided not to fill out the survey. Sen. Sutton’s strong pro-life voting record is clear and evidenced by the multiple A ratings your organization has given Sen. Sutton over the years.”

Regarding the group’s invitation to Noem to speak at the convention, Deutsch said he invited Sutton to speak during last year’s convention, and Sutton declined. Deutsch said that shortly after the survey questionnaires were mailed this year, he received a phone call from Sutton, who had some questions about the process.

“He wanted to know, ‘What happens if everybody answers the questions the same way?’” Deutsch said. “I answered that would mean each candidate would get the same score.”

But Deutsch also explained to Sutton that the questionnaire was “one of three components used to determine the endorsement. The other two were comparative voting records and other information, such as public statements, posts and activities relevant to the issue.”

In the endorsement sent out through, SDRTL Vice President Debbie Pease said: “South Dakota needs a pro-life leader in the governor’s office to ensure greater protections for pregnant mothers and their unborn children, and we think Kristi Noem is that leader.”

In a news release from her campaign, Noem said the endorsement “means the world” to her. She said she is “optimistic we are on the cusp of securing permanent protections for the unborn, and as governor I will want to make sure South Dakota can play a leading role in that effort.”

Noem listed some objectives on the abortion issue if she is elected governor.

* Assign a staffer within the governor’s office to be an “unborn person advocate” who would “monitor, report and recommend legislative and policy changes.
* Pursue “all legislative options to stop abortion and protect the lives of unborn babies.”
* Oppose any efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide.”
* Work to defend South Dakota’s pro-life policies, engaging the top legal minds to litigate on behalf of our values, if necessary.”

I asked Noem campaign staffer Brittany Cummings to explain some of those points.  She said the “unborn person advocate” would be an assignment within the governor’s office, and the advocate “may have other roles as well.”

Asked about specific legislative options, Cummings said Noem would work with the Legislature to come up with specifics. But it appears that the congresswoman hopes to tighten existing restrictions.

“The fact of the matter is that Kristi understands life begins at conception, and we aren’t there yet from a policy perspective,” Cummings said. “Kristi will continue pushing where she can get us closer to codifying that.”

On assisted suicide, Cummings said: “From a moral perspective, Kristi does not believe we should be telling the elderly or the disabled that they don’t have a life worth living. From a policy perspective, physician-assisted suicide laws can be abused.”

I’m not aware of anyone in authority in South Dakota telling the elderly or disabled they don’t have a life worth living. But I’d think most South Dakotans — Democrat or Republican — wouldn't think of saying or promoting such a thing.

I asked Cummings if “engaging top legal minds” means seeking lawyers outside of the state Attorney Genera’s Office on these issues. She responded:

“Kristi believes South Dakota has a great pro-life attorney general candidate in Jason Ravsnborg. But she wants South Dakotans to understand she takes the ongoing litigation very seriously and will ensure we have an entire team of pro-life legal minds ready to take on Roe v. Wade and related decisions.”

Cummings also went back to the Planned Parenthood discussion, saying it was another area where Noem and Sutton differ.

“Planned Parenthood’s leadership in South Dakota has made it very clear that they would prefer that Billie Sutton be elected — and there’s a reason for that,” Cummings said.

I think there’s little doubt that Planned Parenthood leaders and supporters would prefer Sutton to Noem. That doesn’t mean they love Sutton’s position on abortion, or some of his past votes. I’m sure they don’t.

In the past, I've labeled Sutton’s position on abortion “gentle opposition.” He has been gentle in his anti-abortion rhetoric and gentle in some of his votes, which is probably how he earned those Bs and Cs along with the As from Right to Life.

Noem has been anything but gentle, in votes and in rhetoric. Which is how she earned those straight As, and that endorsement.