Billie Sutton Will Not Be Out-Cowboyed

Can a disabled former rodeo rider finally take the governor's mansion for the Democrats in South Dakota?
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Billie Sutton on the campaign trail in South Dakota.

Billie Sutton on the campaign trail in South Dakota.

By the time Billie Sutton rolls his wheelchair into a crowded hotel ballroom, it's been raining in Sioux Falls for about 36 hours, and even the short trip from his pick-up truck to the hotel door has drenched him. He pulls a dry jacket over the damp shoulders of his checked button-down shirt, props his white cowboy hat on his knee, and heads into the "Young Lawyers Reception" at the South Dakota State Bar annual meeting. Sutton is just one of many dignitaries in the room, but he's not an attorney. He's a rancher, a former rodeo star, and a Democratic state senator who has won four consecutive elections in a deeply Republican district. Now he's the Democratic nominee for governor. He's got broad bipartisan support and a real chance to win. His challenge is this: No Democrat has won a race for governor in South Dakota since 1974.

I spent two days in late June shadowing the Sutton campaign, watching as the senator shook hands, gave his stump speech, raised money, and recounted his life story—including the spinal injury he sustained when he was just starting his life as a professional rodeo rider. I watched as, time and time again, through handshake after handshake, he tried to reach across the aisle. He's probably going to need tens of thousands of Republicans to vote for him, based on voter registration numbers in the state.

Sutton has a plan, a message, and a biography that promise to make that outreach viable. He's just appointed a well-known Sioux Falls Republican, Michelle Lavallee, as his running mate. He's campaigning on the need to support agriculture, education, and access to health care, especially for small-town South Dakota. He believes government can and must play a crucial role—though not the only role—in helping towns just like Burke, population about 600, where he was born, raised, and still resides. Sutton's advocacy for effective, transparent, but still somewhat limited government could be a model for Democratic candidates seeking to reclaim the Midwest. It's early yet in the election cycle, but his message seems to be working. Over my visit, I met two sitting Republican state senators, a former GOP attorney general, a GOP-appointed former state supreme court justice, and dozens of Republican-identified businesspeople who are ready to support Billie Sutton. When I ask Sutton about his GOP supporters, he smiles. "[National Democrats] writing off South Dakota is a mistake," he tells me. "Something's happening."

Sutton talks about South Dakota with a combination of pride and urgency, though his voice usually remains measured. He opens stump speeches and individual conversations alike with an appeal to shared values—hard work, family, and community—then turns to the bigger challenges: Young people are leaving South Dakota; public universities aren't competitive with those in neighboring states; the business of agriculture is harder and more controlled by corporate interests than ever; and not enough people have access to health care.

Worst of all, according to Sutton's campaign, after a slew of financial and campaign-finance scandals in the Republican-controlled capital Pierre, and the decision by GOP legislators to overturn an ethics measure enacted by voters through a ballot initiative, too many residents of the state have simply lost faith in the government. Not enough of them vote. When they do vote, Sutton tells me with an air of confusion, they keep declining to throw out the officials who keep breaking their promises. He hopes that will change in November.

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Early the morning after the reception, Sutton, his assistant Clay, and I drive south toward the Iowa border. Sutton's going to speak at the Dakota Dunes business council's monthly coffee meeting, held in a local bank. Dakota Dunes is a prosperous town, various local officials and businesspeople seem pleased to tell me, thanks to its position just over the border from Sioux City, Iowa. Because South Dakota has no income tax, the town is packed with high-earning professionals, doctors, and "more banks than bars or churches," one resident tells me. In other words, this is an upscale, politically conservative, pro-business crowd—the kind of crowd that Sutton is going to need. They are used to voting for Republicans, but some have voted for Democratic senators in the recent past and seem open to Sutton's message, at least in theory.

After Sutton works the room and delivers a version of his standard pitch, there's a surprise. A man named Bruce Odson, who turns out to be the owner of several newspapers in that part of the state, has been listening from near the door. He suddenly pushes into the room and starts to talk about his lifelong support for South Dakota Republicans. He touts all the money he's raised for former GOP governors and says that he knows "every elected Republican politician in the whole region by first name." But this time, Odson announces, "I'm supporting Billie Sutton. He's going to bring the state together." Odson says that if the region wants to grow economically, "the Sutton-Lavellee team is it. It's the first time in a governor's race that I will go to the other side, and I think a lot of people will be joining us."

On our drive, with Clay at the wheel, Sutton and I talk about disability. His stump speech features his rodeo accident as a major turning point, and I want to hear more about how he thinks about his injury, the recovery process, and how that shapes his political philosophy.

"I think about things differently now than I did prior to my injury," Sutton says, admitting that, as a young man, he didn't pay much heed to disability or accessibility. On a personal level, he says he's reflective about the last decade since his injury. "It's really grown me as a person. I've become a lot more thoughtful and empathetic." On the campaign trail, Sutton emphasizes how he benefited from emotional and financial support—not just from his close family and his girlfriend (now his wife), but also when the whole town of Burke raised money so he could get a modified truck. He then makes an easy pivot from his biography to a vision of a South Dakota where everyone has that kind of support.

Billie Sutton meeting voters.

Billie Sutton meeting voters.

While the biographical elements of Sutton's pitch are clear, he's a bit harder to pin down ideologically. That makes sense for a Democratic politician looking to win in South Dakota. He relies on platitudes, although they come off as authentic, like "we're more alike than different" or the importance of civility in politics. When I press him on what he means by civility, he launches into specific critiques of what he calls the impracticality of the current Republican regime in Pierre. He doesn't mind that his political opponents disagree on many issues, but he seems genuinely irked when partisan ideology gets in the way of problem-solving, as with the current regime's objections to Medicaid expansion, for example, which Sutton strongly supports. He tells me that, in the last legislative session, he was part of a team of lawmakers who worked out how to expand Medicaid without raising spending (the details involved improving federal funding for Native American health care and using the savings to the state to expand Medicaid), but that the legislature rejected the measure owing solely to the "partisan divide" over Obamacare.

It's both a moral and a financial issue to him. People need coverage, but also, Sutton says, South Dakota Republicans have no objection to federal dollars on principal. He jokes that if the money for Medicaid had instead been for highways or other transportation projects, "We'd have driven up there [to D.C.] and gotten it ourselves. It would have been in the back of our pick-up, and we would be spending it." Lack of Medicaid expansion puts financial stress on emergency rooms and ultimately the state budget. Instead, he says, "We've given up two billion dollars in South Dakota that we can't get back. We need to have a conversation about what makes sense."

He's similarly upset about a failure to improve access to public higher education in South Dakota, and worries that a lack of education opportunities is just one more factor driving young people out of state, too often never to return. Sutton tells me that the state just isn't financially competitive with its neighbors. Right now, he's focused on need-based scholarships. As Sutton tells me, backed up by a report from the Board of Regents, neighboring Wyoming offers over $2,200 in need-based aid per Pell Grant-eligible student, while Minnesota offers over $1,600, and Colorado and North Dakota each offer over $1,000. In contrast, South Dakota pays $11.65 per student. Again, there's a relatively simple fix: Last year, the Regents proposed a $3.5 million fund to cover this shortfall, but the South Dakota Legislature rejected it.

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Sutton recognizes that his pragmatism, his desire to keep looking for common ground, might put him at odds with some elements in his own party. "There's a faction of people who want change overnight, and it has to be total, absolute upheaval. And there's another faction that's like, you know what, we just have to move the ball. We don't have to score a touchdown on every play, we just have to move the ball, and then keep moving the ball."

Still, Sutton says he is glad to be pressured from the left. "The people that want dramatic change are good because it keeps pushing the envelope, reminding you that, hey, we're not done."

Sutton defines himself as pro-gun and pro-life. He voted for a forced counseling law in 2011 and a "fetal pain" law (based on questionable science) in 2016 that banned abortion after 20 weeks. He voted against an attempt in the most recent session to expand the abortion ban back to the first trimester. On firearms, he has no hesitation voicing his support for widespread gun ownership and notes to me that he's often had an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association (right now it's a C+). Still, after talking to people in his district, he voted against arming teachers, allowing concealed carry on college campuses, and against arming lawmakers in Pierre. "Teachers don't go into teaching to be cops. They go in to teach," he tells me, "So why don't we have the people who want to be cops—let them do their job."

How do the state's most hardcore Democrats feel about their centrist gubernatorial candidate? On my last night in Sioux Falls, I attend a fundraiser at the hotel, then a rally in Falls Park. The recent rains have turned the waterfalls into a torrent of brown water, providing a dramatic backdrop to the event in a nearby picnic shelter. At both events, I meet dozens of loyal Democrats, most of whom clearly identify as far to the left of Sutton, but I'm unable to find anyone who's particularly perturbed by the candidate's more centrist positions, even on abortion or guns. They like his education plans. They like his chances to win. They are realists about the political make-up of the state where they all reside, and no one outside the campaign is wholly confident of victory. "There's nothing as brutal as a Wednesday in November," one supporter remarks wryly, remembering years of Democratic defeat. But she's optimistic. At least no one is going to out-cowboy Billie Sutton.

Right now, the focus of the race for governor is firmly fixed on personality and biography. The Republican primary for governor was tough, featuring Kristi Noem, the state's current representative to the United States Congress, versus sitting Attorney General Marty Jackley. Noem ran against Jackley as a big-city lawyer. She released a video with her on horseback, carrying a rifle, in which she said: "I can still ride horse. I can still shoot a gun. What else do you need in South Dakota?" Jackley responded with an ad showing him on horseback, rifle over his shoulder, speaking to the camera to say that balancing a budget might be a valuable third characteristic in a candidate. Noem defeated Jackley handily.

That line of attack, though, isn't going to work well against Sutton, the former rodeo rider. And, as the summer wanes, it seems likely that the race will shift to bigger economic factors. President Donald Trump's global trade war is affecting core South Dakota products like corn, beef, and especially soybeans. Soybean prices have fallen 16 percent in the last few months. If a blue wave hits the prairie, it will be because of frustration about global commodity prices linked to foreign retaliatory tariffs.

Still, to catch a political wave, you have to have the right candidate. Democrats in South Dakota seem to think they've found one.

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