Morning After Analysis: A Look At Noem-Sutton Debate

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Sutton Noem Gov Race
This commentary comes from Capitol News Bureau Chief Bob Mercer. 

Like many of you, I watched the live broadcast of the KELO-TV debate Tuesday night between two of the candidates seeking to be South Dakota’s next governor.

On the morning after, one thing stood clear. Endorsements mattered to Republican Kristi Noem. They didn’t seem to matter as much to Democrat Billie Sutton.

Noem didn’t appear in time for the coin flip in KELO’s lobby about a half-hour before. Her tardiness might have thrown off Sutton, whether or not he showed it.

Her being late, as a four-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to the first of two statewide debates, seemed provocative.

Sutton instead waited in his wheelchair, alongside KELO anchor Brady Mallory. They talked briefly about what Sutton thought of the race.

Her late arrival didn’t come up during the hour she spent on the set with KELO’s moderators, Sammi Bjelland and Don Jorgenson.

The third candidate, Libertarian Kurt Evans, didn’t meet the station owner’s criteria to be in the debate.

Evans reported on his campaign-finance report the previous day he didn’t raise or spend one penny. One of the criteria was raising $50,000.

If you based your opinion solely on the many, many TV ads that aired in the past few months, you might have thought Sutton had at least pulled even or gone ahead.

Noem time after time in the debate stuck to her strategy of demeaning Sutton. She painted “income tax” across him, despite his latest vow to veto any income tax.

And she mocked him for his support of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the 2016 Democratic candidates for president.

I never heard the words “Donald Trump” from Sutton in the debate, even though Noem held a Sioux Falls fundraiser with President Trump last month.

I never heard the “pre-school” from Sutton either, even though pre-school funding is one of the ideas that separates him from her.

I never heard Sutton attack, nor Noem explain, one of her four “pillars of protection” – her promise to not appoint any new state boards or commissions or task forces.

Noem deftly worked in the endorsements she’s received from South Dakota Right to Life, the NRA and other groups that have solid bases of supporters.

Sutton declared several times he was pro-life. But he never mentioned that Kassidy Noem, one of Noem’s daughters, is youth outreach director for South Dakota Right to Life.

Instead he had to try to explain away why his running mate was pro-choice and why some South Dakota leaders of Planned Parenthood supported his campaign financially.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night came in their answers to whether they would live in the taxpayer-funded governor’s mansion, built in about 2005 near the Capitol on the same site as the Depression-era residence that preceded it.

Noem said she would go back and forth to Pierre and indicated her husband, Bryon, would continue running his business at Bryant.

She said her travel would be similar to how she goes back and forth to Washington, D.C.

Sutton said he and his wife, Kelsey, and their son would spend “the vast majority” of their time in Pierre.

Both said they would shake up state government’s Cabinet.

The past governor, now-U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, kept many of Bill Janklow’s Cabinet members after winning the 2002 general election.

The current governor, Dennis Daugaard, was lieutenant governor to Rounds and kept many Rounds-era Cabinet members after winning the 2010 general election.

Sutton emphasized how he wants to clean up state government after the EB-5 and GEAR UP scandals.

Noem poked at Sutton’s acceptance of money from two lawyers for GEAR UP criminal defendants while he served on the legislative panel that oversees audits.

He poked back on her acceptance of money from two men who were central figures in GEAR UP but weren’t criminally charged.

Both candidates promised more transparency from state government. Noem laughed away Sutton’s statement that he publicly released his emails. She said no one asked her to release her emails.

There was a telling set of answers when moderator Jorgenson asked where the two stood on the same-sex bathroom bill that legislators passed and Daugaard vetoed.

Noem said she stood by her position that she would have signed it but would have kept working on it. Sutton said he stood with Daugaard.

Another difference came on marijuana. Noem said Sutton favored legalization. Sutton said there was a big difference between possession being a felony and ingestion.

It’s hard to know whether there are enough pot users in South Dakota for Sutton’s answer to make a difference. But South Dakota voters have repeatedly rejected marijuana measures on the statewide ballots.

Unless I missed it, Noem never mentioned she would be the first woman to be elected governor of South Dakota. And unless I missed it, Sutton never mentioned that he would be the first Democrat elected governor since Dick Kneip in 1974.

They’ll debate one more time, on Thursday night on South Dakota public television, and Libertarian Evans will get to participate. It will be the only chance Evans has to be on a statewide stage.

Will Evans affect this election? Back in 2002, when Republican U.S. Rep. John Thune challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, Evans was the third candidate in that race, too. Johnson held onto his Senate seat by 524 votes. Evans drew 3,070 votes.

Two years later, Evans wasn’t on the ballot. But Thune was back. In a head-to-head match, Thune knocked out Tom Daschle, the U.S. Senate’s Democratic leader, by 4,508 votes.

Overall, Noem came out of the KELO-TV debate better than Sutton did.

She’s now been through six statewide elections. Her experience showed Tuesday night. So did her polish. So did, many times, her disdain.

Sutton meanwhile seemed duller and a shade bland. He didn’t bring enough new to cleanly beat her.

I would give her a grade of a strong B-plus. I would give him maybe a B-minus or a strong C-plus.

What sticks in my mind was their exchange near the end on why the campaign turned negative.

Sutton said he was simply responding to her.

“The attacks on me have just not been true,” he said.

Noem said it was “incredibly important” voters know the differences.

“It is important people have all the information when they go to make that decision,” she said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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