With a cowboy's appeal and a carefully tailored image as a moderate, Democrat Billie Sutton is waging a surprisingly successful campaign that's put his party within striking distance of winning South Dakota's governorship for the first time in more than four decades.
Sutton, a state senator and former professional rodeo rider, on Thursday unveiled new GOP and independent endorsements. The move came just a day after an Argus Leader and KELO-TV poll showed Sutton running even with Republican Rep. Kristi Noem in a contest in which she had long been regarded as the favorite.
"I think that's why it's so competitive, is because we are pulling a lot of Republicans, a lot of independents, and that's what it's going to take to win," Sutton said after Thursday's event. "We need people that are going to bring us together, not divide us."
A recent Sutton television ad features Republicans touting their support for a "different kind of leader." In another spot, a registered GOP voter tells viewers that with all the corruption in state capital of Pierre, the "last thing we need is Kristi Noem for governor." Sutton in June named a Republican businesswoman (she switched parties) to be his running mate.
In his first television ad, Sutton emphasized his cowboy roots and described his move into public service after a 2007 rodeo accident left him unable to walk. Sutton — a self-described "pro-life and pro-Second Amendment" moderate — has downplayed his party, casting himself as an anti-corruption crusader who would buck the status quo in the wake of financial misconduct scandals that grabbed South Dakota headlines.
For David Volk, a registered Republican and former state treasurer, it's in part a belief that Sutton will bring unity to the state Capitol that spurred his support. Volk said he doesn't see a great deal of philosophical difference between the candidates and likes Sutton's demeanor.
"He has a personality and ability to bring us together, and I think that's important in this day and age," Volk said. "I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm a South Dakotan first."
Sutton's appeals across party lines have earned him some support, with 19 percent of Republican and 57 percent of independent and unaffiliated poll respondents saying they would vote for him. By comparison, 10 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of independents polled favored Noem.
Noem has fought back by reminding voters of Sutton's Democratic affiliation and trying to tie him to 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She also has asserted — over Sutton's denials — that Sutton backs a state income tax for South Dakota, one of seven states without an individual income tax. In their first debate this week, she took aim at Sutton's trustworthiness, saying his background and votes in the Legislature don't match his campaign rhetoric.
"If Billie believed everything that he said in this campaign, he'd be a Republican, but he's not. He's a Democrat," Noem said.
Their second debate was set for Thursday evening.
The state Republican Party emailed supporters Wednesday after the poll came out, urging them to engage in the race between Noem, a "rock-solid conservative" and "liberal Democrat" Sutton.
Noem and Sutton each had support from 45 percent of respondents, with 9 percent undecided. Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy's telephone poll of 500 likely South Dakota voters was conducted Oct. 18-22 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Noem said in a statement that her campaign is feeling good.
"Everywhere we go, I can feel the momentum building," Noem said. "People are tuning in, and they're getting excited about bringing home a win on Nov. 6."
The four-term congresswoman has some significant strengths: a nearly 98,000-voter GOP advantage, experience running statewide campaigns and support from the state's dominant political party and its top officials. Noem has also significantly outraised and outspent Sutton, though he reported a banked cash advantage in a campaign finance report that went through Oct. 17.
Since then, Noem has reported taking in more than $450,000 — including $300,000 from the Republican Governors Association-funded RGA Right Direction PAC — while Sutton has raised more than $94,000.
Sutton's campaign got a boost recently with endorsements from the Rapid City Journal and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. At the Thursday event, Sutton received the backing of some current and past officials, including former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who ran for Senate as an independent in 2014.
"This is a historic opportunity that we may not have again soon," he said.
Noem has touted endorsements from Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Attorney General Marty Jackley. They wrote in an endorsement letter that Noem would continue to deliver "tremendous Republican leadership for our state."