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South Dakota gubernatorial candidates (from left), Republican Kristi Noem and Democrat Billie Sutton.

With South Dakota governor's seat a toss-up, candidates race for votes in final days

PIERRE, S.D. -- With less than one week before South Dakota voters elect their new governor, the two major candidates are racing to the finish line.

A poll from the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader last week sent shockwaves through the state when it showed Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton in a virtual tie. According to the poll, 45 percent of 500 likely voters surveyed said they would vote for Noem, and 45 percent said for Sutton.

With a dead heat in a historically red state, the candidates kicked into high gear, amping up their pre-election tour of the state.

The campaigns

Political powers-that-be also seem to have noticed the potential for an upset.

Democratic Action, a PAC backed by the Washington-based Democratic Governors Association, poured $375,000 into Sutton’s campaign just 12 days before the election, shortly after the poll’s release. Also from Washington, Sutton received $10,000 from the National Education Association’s Fund for Children and Public Education and $25,000 from a PAC associated with The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.

Before sizable Oct. 25 and 26 contributions, Sutton had brought in $23,500 from federal and out-of-state PAC contributors, according to campaign finance records filed Oct. 22 with the South Dakota Secretary of State. The majority of his contributions filed on Oct. 22 came from individual contributions totaling over $1 million.

Noem has been backed by Washington from the start, stacking up nearly $975,000 in out-of-state or federal PACs, according to her campaign finance records filed on Oct. 22.

One contribution was from the Republican counterpart of the DGA, the Republican Governors Association, whose RGA Right Direction PAC dumped a total of $500,000 into Noem’s campaign. Vice President Mike Pence’s Great America Committee’s also contributed $100,000.

Noem has also gotten a boost thanks to endorsements from prominent Republican party members like U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Attorney General Marty Jackley and Vice President Mike Pence.

Perhaps most notoriously, a Sept. 7 event benefiting Noem called in help from President Donald Trump. Invitations to the event circulated online and posted by The Rapid City Journal show that guests could pay $5,000 per couple for a photo opportunity with Trump.

The Sutton campaign was quick to criticize Noem’s tactics, saying she used the event to circumvent campaign finance laws capping individual contributions for statewide candidates to $4,000, breaking her campaign promise to refuse contributions from PACs devised for this purpose.

Sutton’s fundraising techniques have not come without their own controversy, though. Also recorded in Sutton’s Oct. 27 supplemental filing with the Secretary of State is a $23,000 contribution from the Friends of George Kenzy -- George Kenzy being Sutton’s father-in-law, according to the campaign.

On the issues

On the issues, Noem and Sutton largely follow their respective parties’ agendas. Noem’s cornerstone campaign platforms have been to prevent tax increases, downsize government, maintain the state’s authority over federal and push for state government transparency. She is NRA-backed and pro-life, and has said she believes in the “traditional” definition of marriage between a man and a woman.

Sutton has also made it a point in his campaign to promise to “clean up” state government, telling Forum News Service in an interview that it is his number one goal if he wins Tuesday’s election. He proposes putting state dollars toward early childhood education, making healthcare more affordable and said in an Oct. 23 debate on KELO-TV that he thinks the issue of gay marriage has been settled by the Supreme Court and “I like the way it is right now.” Notably, Sutton differs from the Democratic party’s platform on abortion; he says he is pro-life.

When asked in separate interviews what they believed would be the biggest challenge for South Dakota’s next governor, each candidate answered differently.

Noem said it will be growing South Dakota’s workforce to meet current needs, and lifting workers from jobs with lower wages to ones with higher. If elected, Noem said she will work to build on-the-job training and tech school programs in order to train skilled workers and in turn promote economic growth.

Sutton said the biggest challenge will be tackling mental health challenges and addiction in the state, which he said “run hand-in-hand.” To accomplish this, he said he hopes to expand access to mental health services and establish mentorship programs for at-risk youth to prevent them from falling down the rabbit hole of addiction in the first place.

Why they want your vote

Noem said what makes her different from Sutton is the experience she brings to the table. She said she is experienced in the state’s top two industries -- agriculture and tourism -- and learned from her time in Washington as South Dakota’s representative how to leverage federal connections to benefit South Dakota.

Throughout his campaign, Sutton has emphasized bipartisanship, and says he would work to get input from both sides of the aisle to solve problems as a unit. In what he called “a country divided,” he said this is more important now than ever, and is the most important role of the governor.

Contact Sarah Mearhoff at smearhoff@forumcomm.com or 610-790-4992.

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