South Dakota voters haven’t elected a Democrat as governor in more than 40 years. But Republicans in Washington and in the state have recently grown concerned that could change this year.
A mix of the national political atmosphere, the uniqueness of Democratic candidate Billie Sutton and a few missteps by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem’s campaign – namely the belief that she didn’t take Sutton seriously early enough – have some Republican operatives believing that the state could surprise people in November and elect Sutton, the anti-abortion rights, pro-gun South Dakota Senate Minority Leader who was paralyzed from the waist down in a rodeo accident in 2007.
“Her and her team, a few months ago, thought this was going to be a cake walk,” said a top Republican operative. “They don’t now.”
The operative added: “Sutton still has an uphill battle. Is it a competitive race? Absolutely. Noem’s team now seems to realize that.”
Noem directly denies that she didn’t take Sutton seriously, but in an interview with CNN, she acknowledged that the race has been closer than she expected.
“I knew (the primary) would be hard,” she said. “I didn’t know about the general.”
The Sutton-Noem race anchors a series of gubernatorial contests in prairie states – namely South Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas – where Democrats are on offense in 2018. The Democratic Governors Association has grown confident they could flip at least one governor’s mansion in the three so-called “Tornado Alley” states with authentic, local candidates who break the mold of how lean-Republican voters in each state see Republicans.