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SD Democratic governor candidates see Noem running same playbook

During the gubernatorial campaign, Billie Sutton has been a quiet mentor to Jamie Smith, offering bits of advice from one opponent of Kristi Noem to another. Sutton said the debate "brought back memories" and says he'll help the campaign in any way he can.

State Sen. and Democratic candidate for governor Billie Sutton, of Burke, speaks to community members at Cornerstone Coffee House and Deli in Mitchell on Friday, less than a week before Election Day. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)
In a 2018 file photo, Democratic candidate for governor Billie Sutton, of Burke, speaks to community members at Cornerstone Coffee House and Deli in Mitchell in the days before Election Day.
Republic file photo
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — As Billie Sutton watched the lone gubernatorial debate from his home in Burke on Friday, Sept. 30, he couldn’t help but think about his own battles with Gov. Kristi Noem during the 2018 campaign.

“It brought back memories,” Sutton told Forum News Service during a phone call on Oct. 5. “She is never going to answer a question she doesn't want to answer.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith, a former house minority leader from Sioux Falls who got to know Sutton while the two served in the legislature, said Sutton has been a major confidant during the campaign.

“He knows how hard it is to do what we’re doing,” Smith told Forum News Service.

Before Friday’s debate, the two had a short conversation, where Sutton simply told Smith to be himself. Sutton says that, while some may have been wishing Smith would match Noem blow for blow, he appreciated the focus from Smith on civility.

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“Maybe I respect it because I felt like I was the same way and still am,” Sutton said. “But I don't think we're going to change our political problems by personal attacks and more of the same divisive rhetoric. It kind of goes back to, are you going to create good behavior by furthering bad behavior?”

Comparing the Sutton and Smith campaigns

When drawing lessons from the gubernatorial race in 2018 that saw Sutton lose to Noem by just under 4% and applying them to 2022, Michael Card, the professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Dakota, pointed to a few advantages Sutton had over Smith.

One of those is numerical. Since Election Day on Nov. 6, 2018, when Sutton lost by a margin of about 11,000 votes, South Dakota has gained 35,000 registered Republicans while losing 8,000 registered Democrats.

Another is monetary; as of the most recent campaign finance disclosures from May, the Smith campaign reported just over $110,000 in cash on hand. For comparison, at the same point in 2018, the Sutton campaign reported $880,000.

In May 2022, the Noem war chest sat at $7.7 million.

Michael Linngren, Smith’s deputy campaign manager, says the pre-primary numbers fail to tell the full story, since a late announcement from Smith meant the campaign was still in its early stages.

“We’re projecting to out-raise what Sutton did between April and November,” Linngren said. “So fundraising is looking good. It's definitely picked up since the pre-primary filing.”

Adding to the need for spending, says Card, is the deficit in name recognition.

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“Sutton had a higher profile going in than Smith did,” Card said. “And part of that was his rodeo accident, and his knowledge around West River as being a rodeo athlete.”

Campaign mailer, "Vote NO on Noem"
A Billie Sutton campaign mailer from 2018.
Courtesy Michael Card

As for similarities, the messaging strategies from each side in 2022 have definite parallels to 2018. The tag on a Sutton mailer — “We need to clean up state government, Kristi Noem will just make it worse” — rhymes with Smith pointing to the dual inquiries by an ethics board into possible abuse of office by the governor.

"Two Peas in a Pod" Kristi Noem campaign mailer.
The front and back of a 2018 mailer from the Noem campaign comparing Billie Sutton to Bernie Sanders.
Courtesy Michael Card

On the other side, Noem’s attacks during the 2018 campaign frequently featured comparisons of Sutton to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton; substituting in Joe Biden for the 2022 race, and it appears little has changed in the strategy.

“What they were doing was trying to create fear and sow doubt with people who were on the fence, people saying, ‘I kind of like this guy, it seems like he would do a good job, but I’m not 100% sure,’ ” Sutton recalls of the flurry of attacks ads from the 2018 campaign. “Then they see an ad where my head morphs into Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton and says that I'm somebody that I'm not.”

Sutton says he’s willing to stump in final weeks of campaign

In the final weeks of the race, Smith says the campaign plans to make several stops with appearances from Sutton, although the exact calendar and locations are yet to be determined.

“Later this month, we'll be announcing a rally tour to close out the election cycle and more details will be coming then,” Linngren said. “But we want to make sure we’re showcasing the South Dakotans that our state identifies with, and Billie is a great example of that.”

Card pointed to Sutton’s success in the Sioux Falls suburbs as one location where a joint appearance could be effective. Sutton also performed well on his home turf in Gregory and surrounding counties, playing Noem to a virtual tie despite an on-paper disadvantage in registrations.

“With Larry Rhoden on the ticket, some of the West River advantage that Sutton might bring to Jamie Smith could get tamped down a little bit,” Card said. “But it may also show people that, ‘This is OK, this is a good Democrat.’ And you have to remember, most Democrats in South Dakota aren’t like coastal Democrats.”

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Outside of a few phone calls, Sutton has not been involved yet, spending most of his time raising his six-year-old son and a set of twin boys who were born in May. Still, he says things have calmed down on the newborn front, and he would be open to giving Smith a hand wherever possible.

“We talked a couple of weeks ago about me hitting some stops with him, but I definitely let candidates run the kind of race they want to run and try to be helpful where I can,” Sutton said. “I support Jamie and will help him in any way I can down the stretch.”

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Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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