State Sen. Billie Sutton made one of the strongest showings in several decades of a Democrat seeking to be elected South Dakota’s next governor in Tuesday’s general election.
He couldn’t overcome four-term Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem, however, who in January 2019 will be sworn in as South Dakota’s first woman governor.
According to unofficial returns from the SD Secretary of State’s office, Noem won with a 3 percent lead in total votes over Sutton.
Wednesday morning, her unofficial vote total was 172,894, which was 51 percent of the 339,154 votes cast in the gubernatorial race.
Sutton, from Burke, received 161,416 votes which is 48 percent of the total vote. Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans came in a distant third, receiving 4,844 votes.
Clay County proved to be a bright spot, statistically, for Sutton. His total vote count of 3,038 in the county was nearly double what Noem received. Unofficial figures from the Clay County auditor’s office show Sutton received about 65 percent of the vote in the county. Noem, with 1,552 votes in Clay County, received just over 33 percent of the votes cast in the gubernatorial race by Clay County citizens.
After a strong win in the June primary, Noem acknowledged it would be "incredibly special" to be the first woman elected to the post. But Noem said then that she believed people were supporting her for her qualifications.
Sutton's strong campaign gave Democrats rare hope in a statewide election. He cast himself as a moderate, with pro-gun and anti-abortion stances that made him palatable to many Republican voters, to push Noem hard to the finish. His unusual life story — former rodeo cowboy who turned to politics after a paralyzing injury — brought him added attention.
Noem replaces replace term-limited Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
According to the Associated Press, Sutton — a self-described "pro-life and pro-Second Amendment" moderate — cast himself as an anti-corruption crusader who would buck the status quo in the wake of financial misconduct scandals that grabbed South Dakota headlines.
Noem reminded voters that Sutton is a Democrat and tried to tie him to 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She also asserted — over Sutton's denials — that he backs a state income tax for South Dakota, one of seven states without it.
"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 during a late October debate.
She's promised to protect state residents from tax increases and more government regulations, improve state transparency and fight federal government intrusion.
Noem, who has roots in ranching and farming, brought major strengths to the race: a nearly 100,000-voter GOP advantage, experience running statewide campaigns and support from the state's dominant political party and its top officials. She also significantly outraised and outspent Sutton.
“I congratulate Kristi Noem and Larry Rhoden on tonight’s election victory,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard stated in a press released issued early Wednesday morning. “Kristi has been an excellent member of Congress and I know she will be a great governor. Over the coming weeks, my administration will do everything we can to help the governor-elect and her team prepare to take office on Jan. 5.”
Noem will complete her term in Congress at the end of 2018. South Dakotans decided Tuesday to send another Republican, Dusty Johnson, to represent them in Washington, D.C. starting in 2019.
Johnson received 60 percent of the vote Tuesday, defeating Democratic challenger Tim Bjorkman. Johnson’s unofficial statewide vote total was 202,673 compared to Bjorkman’s 121,001. Independent candidate Ron Wieczorek received 2 percent of the ballots cast in the U.S. House race, garnering a total of 7,322 votes.
Clay County threw its support behind Bjorkman in the U.S. House race with 2,567 votes compared to the 1,905 received in the county by Johnson. Bjorkman received 55 percent of the vote in the county, followed by Johnson with 41 percent and Wieczorek, whose 66 votes equals about 1 percent of the ballots cast in the county in the U.S. House race.
“I congratulate Dusty Johnson on his election to the U.S. House of Representatives,” Gov. Daugaard said Tuesday night. “I was proud to have Dusty as my chief of staff, and I will be very proud to have him as my representative in Washington.”
In another top statewide race, Republican, Jason Ravnsborg was elected to a four-year term as South Dakota top prosecutor.
Ravnsborg, a Yankton attorney, defeated Democrat Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney, by a margin of 179,049 to 145,526, according to unofficial vote totals from the South Dakota Secretary of State’s office.
Republicans won other constitutional offices by comfortable margins.
• SECRETARY OF STATE: Republican Steve Barnett defeated Democrat Alexandra Frederick 211,039 to 112,777.
• STATE AUDITOR: Republican Rich Sattgast is the winner with 202,031 votes. Democrat Tom Cool received 113,599 votes.
• STATE TREASURER: Republican Josh Haeder defeated Democrat Aaron Matson. Haeder received 194,998 votes; Matson received 117,729.
• COMMISSIONER OF SCHOOL AND PUBLIC LANDS: Republican Ryan Brunner is victorious over Democrat Woody Houser. Brunner received 193,412 votes; Houser received 116,739.
• PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSIONER: Republican incumbent Kristi Fiegen defeated Democrat Wayne Frederick. Fiegen received 206,410 votes; 108,897 votes were cast for Frederick.