Kristi Noem had the president of the United States. She had the vice president. She had four U.S. senators and a governor.
She had 44 years of Republican dominance in gubernatorial elections and an edge of almost 100,000 registered voters.
Billie Sutton had, well, Billie. And hope.
Yet, the 34-year-old state senator from Burke pushed the four-term U.S. House member all the way to the end of this gubernatorial campaign, falling just 11,000 votes short of becoming the first Democrat to be elected governor since 1974.
Noem’s 172,894 votes were the least for a Republican candidate for governor since Bill Janklow got 166,621 in 1998. Sutton’s 161,416 were the most for a Democratic candidate for governor since Dick Kneip’s 185,012 in 1972.
By three percentage points, 51-48, Noem did something historic. She'll be the first woman governor in South Dakota history.
And by those same three percentage points, Billie Sutton fell just short of doing something incredible. He’ll have to settle for something really impressive. He was an extraordinary candidate with an uplifting life story, a soft-spoken rhetorical strength and a moderate political philosophy — which should be a formula for success in South Dakota for a Democrat.
Even though Sutton didn’t succeed in winning the election, he ran an honorable campaign. He engaged people who have felt disengage and inspired people in need of inspiration. His message was light on invective and distortion and heavy on sincerity and bipartisan inclinations.
In the end, it was a loss to be proud of, after a race that was closer, even, than the final percentages.
Two or three weeks ago, Noem was in real trouble. She was in a dead heat with Sutton on public polling and on others. Her own internal polling indicated that she was behind, in fact, beyond than the usual 4- to 5-percent margin of error.
That rattled a Noem camp that was sure of two things: Sutton was an unusually strong Democrat candidate. And a worrisome number of Republicans weren’t supporting their candidate. She was head for a loss.
So it was all hands on deck for the Republicans, who do nothing quite so well as they fall in line behind the party flag, if not necessarily the party nominee. I spoke to one Republican who said he would not vote for Noem yet felt obligated to his party to promote her campaign. I spoke to an old-school Republican who had voted early, for Billie, because he feared if he waited until close to Election Day he would end up voting for Noem.
The GOP pull. It's strong in South Dakota.
Trump had already come to the Sioux Falls to help Noem with fundraising and campaign energy. Sen. John Thune and Gov. Dennis Daugaard cut ads that ran in the last couple of weeks. Vice President Mike Pence flew into Rapid City with U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Core Gardner of Colorado.
The Rapid City rally was more important to Noem than you might imagine. The Black Hills and most of West River outside the reservations is strongly Republican, and area of important strength for Noem in the past. Yet Noem was struggling to fully engage the party faithful in the heart of her political constituency.
Daugaaard and especially Thune stepped in to help with that. And the big event at the Rapid City airport with Pence, et al. was designed to reel in wandering GOP voters.
After noting news of that rally, a friend asked me where Billie’s Democratic posse was during the campaign.
“Where was Daschle? Where was Johnson? Why didn’t they show up to help?” he said.
Johnson showed up in a pretty big way with money from his leftover campaign funds. I assume Daschle gave some, too. But I also assume that neither was considered a difference maker — at least not in a good way — in a campaign where Sutton was trying to reach across the partisan fence for 20 or 25 percent of the Republican voters.
So he had no posse, as Noem’s galloped through the final days of the race.
Noem made a flurry of stops across the state in the final week. And she continued a flurry of advertising, mixing admirable issues-oriented advertisement with a more-dominant barrage of attacks ads that assaulted the truth as much as they attacked Sutton.
He is a reasonable political moderate with slightly more liberal leanings on some issues and slightly more conservative leanings on others. The ideas that he is some wild liberal, as Noem worked hard to portray him, was ludicrous. But it was probably effective in pulling back some Republican voters.
Did it need to be that way? Noem clearly thought it did, if she was going to win. And maybe she was right.
But in brief comments during his visit to Rapid City on behalf of Noem, Lindsey Graham offered a more responsible criticism of Sutton, as reported by Seth Tupper in the Rapid City Journal. Graham said he hadn’t met Sutton and didn’t have anything bad to say about him.
“But I will make one observation,” Graham continued. “If you believe Hillary Clinton would have been a good president, you’re probably not going to be a good governor for South Dakota.”
I don’t agree with that. And I think it’s possible I know South Dakota better than Lindsey Graham does. But it’s legitimate campaign rhetoric, invoked in a reasonable, responsible way — unlike much of what we saw from Noem in the closing days of the campaign.
Could she have won without it? We’ll never know. I sure wish we’d had a chance to find out.
But dishonesty in campaign ads doesn’t necessarily translate into dishonesty in governance. Being mean-spirited in ads doesn’t necessarily mean being mean spirited in leading the state.
And Noem now will have a chance to live up to her positive advertisements and promises and prove she is better than her distorted attacks. I hope she does. I like it when South Dakota governors succeed.
I ended up voting for Sutton. He earned my vote. And I was disappointed that he lost. But I was nonetheless inspired to see South Dakota elect its first woman governor. That means something. And it’s something important. It’s well past time.
So I hope Noem will take her intelligence, toughness and obvious skills as a politician and translate them into effective leadership as the state’s chief executive. I hope she won’t be afraid to break from Republican traditions or challenge Republican presumptions. And I hope she’ll listen to members of what’s left of Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate when they offer constructive ideas or criticism.
She might even want to listen to Billie Sutton from time to time. Because in doing that, she’ll also be listening to the 161,416 South Dakotans who voted for him.
A total that was just short of amazing.