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     Good candidate: “I am asked all the time what makes a good political candidate.  The ability to craft and tell a coherent story that emotionally connects with voters. There  it is. That is the ‘secret sauce.’ ” – Alex Patton, political consultant

Is Billie Sutton the best Democratic candidate for governor since Dick Kneip?

That’s what many Democrats and some Republicans believe.

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of Republicans who say they will vote for Sutton. Right-wingers would call them RINOs – Republicans in Name Only – but in fact the Republican Party has always been a broad-spectrum organization. Some registered Republicans are quite liberal on social issues, taxation, and government size and in many respects have something in common with the Democrat party.

In South Dakota, Republicans have dominated the Statehouse since the beginning. There have only been four Democrats elected governor in South Dakota since statehood in 1889. Think about it. It’s a daunting statistic if you’re a Democrat. Sutton is trying to become the first Democrat to occupy the governor’s mansion since Kneip, who in 1978  left the post early to become ambassador to Singapore.

Is Sutton the strongest Democrat to run since then?

He’s part of the conversation, but I think the top Democrat to run but not win was Lars Herseth in 1986. He came within a whisker of beating George Mickelson in the touted race between the sons of two former governors. Herseth was smart, moderate, experienced and respected. He would have made a fine governor. Not that Mickelson wasn’t because he was exceptional. His record speaks for itself.

After Herseth, the Democrats put forward at least two candidates who, had they won, would have served the state well: Jim Abbott, recently retired president of the University of South Dakota, is on the short list, as is Roger McKellips, a banker from Alcester.

Also deserving mention are Jim Beddow, former president of Dakota Wesleyan University, and Scott Heidepriem, an attorney from Sioux Falls.

What about Bernie Hunhoff, longtime legislator and founder of South Dakota Magazine?  Or Susan Wismer, a CPA from Britton?  They brought ability and experience, but knew when they ran that the odds were long against them.

It isn’t that Democrats don’t put up quality candidates, it is just that the state is overwhelmingly Republican by registration and possessed by tradition and a more conservative bent for state but not national policy.

Sutton’s strengths are his low negatives, a compelling personal story, and his pro-life, pro-gun, West River flavor.

Kristi Noem can campaign on her experience, her many accomplishments and conservative positions on the issues. She should win, but is no shoo-in.

Sutton has a chance, which is more than can be said of any Democrat since Lars Herseth.


Noel Hamiel is a retired newspaperman. Past columns can be found at

 Sept. 26, 2018