YANKTON, S.D. — Four years ago on the last day in May on a makeshift stage atop a bluff near Burke, S.D., overlooking the blue ribbon of Missouri River — a photogenic podium in the heart of South Dakota — rancher, banker, former rodeo star and Democratic state legislator Billie Sutton announced his candidacy for governor.
The resulting longshot candidacy from a then-33-year-old, an improbable rural Democrat who'd voted in favor of pro-life legislation as well as a medical marijuana program, bucked historic trends in 2018, two years after the state elected Donald Trump with 61% of the vote, by landing within just 11,000 votes of upsetting Kristi Noem, who'd spent nearly a decade in Washington, D.C. in Congress growing her name and campaign chest.
Eyeing the upcoming 2022 election, supporters say his sensibilities might prove a foil to a politically divisive Noem — a Biden-esque takedown of a Trump-courting Republican politician.
But less than 17 months before voters in South Dakota go back to the polls to choose whether to keep in the job Noem, whose laissez-faire COVID-19 approach has seemingly electrified some voters while demoralizing others, or hand the state's highest seat to someone else, not a single Democrat has formally announced a candidacy.
And all eyes are again on that ranch out near Burke.
"Everyone is waiting to see what Billie Sutton will do," Reynold Nesiba, one of only three Democrats in the state senate, told Forum News Service on Monday, June 7. "And Billie Sutton has not yet decided."
Sutton's absence, said people who've spoken with the former state legislator, should not be taken as a sign that he's not confident about another run. His early announcement in 2017 was an attempt to throw his hat into the ring prior to a potential rival who never materialized, said a South Dakota Democrat Party official.
Sutton, who established a nonprofit leadership institute the year after his failed bid to become the first Democrat to win the governor's seat since Dick Kneip in the 1970s, did not respond to a recent request for comment. But party members said that while Sutton would immediately be the front-runner in a potential Democratic primary to challenge Noem, there are also other candidates who will, especially in lieu of a Sutton candidacy, announce by summer's end.
"There is a lot of excitement around the governor's race," said Nikki Gronli, vice chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party. "We all feel it."
While Noem has seen her own national star rise through the pandemic, a recent poll from South Dakota State University found her supported by less than half of voters. One challenger — in Pierre and perhaps on the campaign trail — thinks the 2022 election won't be about her COVID-19 stance.
"I think she's [Noem's] going to try to make the race into a pandemic referendum," said Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, "But I think we're going to have plenty of other issues to discuss moving forward."
Heinert, an enrolled member of Rosebud Sioux Tribe, led a bipartisan dissent against the governor's merger of the two agencies overseeing environmental regulations and agriculture, and he also introduced a resolution approved by the Senate calling for a congressional inquiry into rescinding battle honors awarded to U.S. soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre. He told FNS he and his family are "evaluating what my next move will be."
"We'll be making a decision fairly soon," added Heinert.
Former Democratic state legislator Dan Ahlers, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Mike Rounds in 2020, told FNS he's not decided himself on his political future but was excited by a potential Heinert candidacy.
"He's well-spoken and has a good background," said Ahlers. "I think he brings a moderate perspective to things, and he is also someone who could help the state mend fences and build bridges on Native issues."
Another potential challenger who has drawn attention is Remi Bald Eagle, who in 2020 was Democratic candidate for the Public Utilities Commission. He told FNS that he "hadn't ruled out" running for office again in 2022, calling it an "honor" to be considered a potential gubernatorial candidate.
Bald Eagle has served as an official for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which has sparred with with the Noem administration, most recently winning a federal court decision that upheld the Biden administration's decision to deny permitting for fireworks this coming July 4.
"Too often, we don't get enough choices in candidates for office," said Bald Eagle. "South Dakota deserves a robust primary."
Other potential candidates
State Rep. Peri Pourier, a Pine Ridge Democrat, told FNS she had "no comment on the gubernatorial candidates," though multiple party officials mentioned her as a possible candidate. Pourier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribal nation, was first elected in 2018 and this past year shepherded through a bill to Noem's desk that established a liaison for missing and murdered indigenous persons.
Attorney Brendan Johnson, son of the last elected statewide Democrat (U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson), has challenged Noem's agenda as a litigant on her lawsuit to overturn Amendment A, and was recently aired as a potential candidate by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
But on Monday, Johnson told FNS he has "zero interest" in running for "any political office."
Johnson added he will "continue to be involved in both litigation and statewide initiatives that I believe can move our state forward."
And multiple South Dakota Democrats also immediately nixed the notion that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, former congresswoman and current president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls who'd been briefly courted for a federal judgeship, had any interest in running for office.
Regardless, if it's Sutton or someone else, national Democrats could be paying attention to the race, given Noem's notoriety. Sam Newton, deputy communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, told FNS that Noem's opposition to expand Medicaid would be among topics persuasive to a bipartisan group of voters.
"That failed record is energizing local support to replace Noem in 2022," said Newton, via email, "and there's no doubt we'll be keeping a close watch as well."
But until a candidate steps forward, that watching will continue.