McFeely: In red South Dakota, like red North Dakota, a Democrat is challenging for high office
Billie Sutton has a story to tell about how he's gotten to the point of having a puncher's chance of being South Dakota's next governor.
It involves a young man possessing a bright and unlimited future, having that path he'd paved disappear in an instant, followed by a new future that might end up in the governor's mansion.
Pretty good stuff, no? Particularly when you take into account Sutton happens to be a Democrat in a state that glows about as red politically as its neighbor to the north.
"It's been a wild ride. I guess I can say that," he said on my 970 WDAY radio show Friday, Aug. 3.
First, some reality. Sutton is a 34-year-old state senator from the small town of Burke in the south-central part of the state, west of the Missouri River. His opponent in November's election will be well-known Kristi Noem, a popular Republican who has served as the state's lone U.S. Representative for four terms. She won 64 percent of the vote in 2016, polling ahead of President Donald Trump by three points. Trump won 76.5 percent of the vote in Sutton's home county, Gregory.
Beating Noem would be like scaling the face of Mount Rushmore using toothpicks.
Yet Sutton and his campaign say they are upbeat three months from election day and have released polling to support their optimism. Sutton's pollster released numbers last week that showed a tight race, actually within the margin of error. Anzalone Liszt Grove Research said it had Noem leading Sutton 46 percent to 42 percent, with 13 percent remaining undecided.
When likely voters were presented with balanced biographical information about Sutton and Noem, Sutton led 48-42 with 11 percent undecided.
"And we haven't even started advertising yet," Sutton said. "This race is real."
Take an internal poll for what it's worth — Noem's campaign immediately dismissed it and mocked Sutton's camp for touting a poll in which he's losing — but the fact a Democrat is anywhere in the same universe as a Republican in South Dakota is noteworthy.
The race has the same feel as North Dakota's U.S. Senate scrap between incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Kevin Cramer — a personally likeable, moderate, bright Democrat facing a Trump-worshipping Republican in a Trump-loving, conservative state.
Whether the Democrat can win in either state will depend on how many Republicans crossover to vote for the candidate instead of the party.
The races are similar in this way, too: Sutton is a common-sense centrist with a record of working well with Republicans. He is a strong Second Amendment supporter, he comes from a ranching family and loves to ride horse and hunt, and categorizes himself as pro-life.
But those issues aren't what he's hanging his cowboy hat on. There is a strong anti-corruption wave in South Dakota after legislators scrubbed a voter-approved initiated ethics measure in 2017, and Sutton is riding that. He also talks of teacher pay, justice system reform, affordable housing, workforce development and lowering the cost of a college education.
Sutton's personal story is compelling, too, one of tragedy turned into triumph. He was a 23-year-old rodeo star in 2007, ranked 30th in the world after a record-breaking college career at the University of Wyoming, when a horse flipped onto him in a chute in Minot, N.D., crushing two of his vertebrae and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
"It was tough, but I had a big support system. I had friends, family, my community and my state really rallied around me. My wife was really my rock in that. At the time, we were only dating for about two weeks when I got hurt. She's stuck with me through everything," Sutton said. "I guess it was all the people who invested in me that awakened a service-over-self mentality in me. I wanted to give back. It meant so much that people put so much into me to help me get through my toughest time that I wanted to figure out a way to give back to people."
Sutton ran for the Legislature in 2010, winning his strongly Republican district. Married in 2011, he and his wife now have a 2-year-old son. He is the state senate minority leader. Sutton prides himself on working across the aisle, which is partially out of necessity given that South Dakota politics are controlled by a Republican supermajority.
He believes the emphasis on issues, not party or ideology, attracts support.
"In South Dakota we have more alike than not, and I think too often we let people divide us. I think that's why I've had success in my legislative district and that's why I have such a great chance here in a statewide race," Sutton said.