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Noem makes history, becoming SD's first female governor

Congresswoman Kristi Noem speaks to the crowd with her husband Bryon and the rest of her family by her side after winning the South Dakota's gubernatorial race during the Republican Election Party on Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)

PIERRE, S.D. -- After hours of tallies showing South Dakota’s governor’s race too close to call, Republican Kristi Noem pulled ahead to win to become the state’s first-ever female governor.

In complete but unofficial results from Tuesday, Nov. 6, Noem garnered 51 percent of the vote to her Democratic opponent Billie Sutton’s 48 percent. Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans received 1 percent of the vote.

Late Tuesday, when a winner hadn't been determined both the Noem and Sutton campaigns declined to comment. Both are expected to talk Wednesday.

Noem will serve a four-year term and succeed Dennis Daugaard, who served the maximum of two terms and earned $113,560 this year.

Noem has represented South Dakota in the state’s lone U.S. House seat since 2011, and Sutton is the Democratic minority leader in the state’s Senate.

She says it's "pretty humbling," but wasn't a big focus of the campaign. Noem says her experience helped her win, and now her priorities are focusing on education, filling workforce needs and dealing with public safety issues.

The race became shockingly heated just weeks before Election Day, as polls emerged showing Noem and Sutton neck-and-neck. Just one day before the election, an Emerson poll was published showing Sutton only 1 percentage point down from Noem, with 5 percent still undecided.

Noem called in help from her Republican colleagues in Washington, D.C. in the last-minute push, with Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham appearing at a Rapid City rally the day before elections. Sutton opted to host his election eve rally in Sioux Falls.

Sutton says his team "fought a heck of a fight," but they were always underdogs. Sutton says he hopes Noem focuses on government transparency, overhauling campaign finance and tamping down the cost of higher education.

Both candidates amped up their campaign visits in the final days before midterms, often making stops in multiple communities in one day. And tens of thousands of dollars in last-minute contributions poured in for both candidates, up until Monday.

Both candidates received sizable contributions from out-of-state PACs and special interests. Noem raked in nearly $975,000 in out-of-state special interest dollars according to her campaign’s most recent filing with the Secretary of State.

Sutton had taken in considerably fewer out-of-state dollars -- $23,500 -- by the time his campaign filed its pre-election report on Oct. 22, but then took in nearly $420,000 in last-minute contributions days before the election.

The candidates mostly stuck with their respective parties’ policy stances in their campaign promises. Noem vowed she would protect South Dakotans from tax increases, government growth and federal intrusion. Sutton said he would prioritize making healthcare affordable and accessible and investing in education.

Both candidates emphasized in their campaigns a need for more state government transparency and stronger campaign finance ethics, likely tapping into voters’ residual upset over scandals like Gear Up and EB-5 that have rocked the state government in recent years.

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