SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Billie Sutton planned to be a world champion saddle bronc rider, but a rodeo accident that claimed his burgeoning career and his ability to walk led instead to a political rise that could make Sutton the first Democrat elected South Dakota governor in over four decades.
A horse flipped over on Sutton in 2007, partially paralyzing him and ending a ride that had brought him among the top 30 in the world for professional rodeo. Sutton said the injury awoke in him a "service over self" mentality. In the ensuing years, he started a family and became the top state Senate Democrat before launching a bid for governor.
"I was faced with a choice: Take the easy way and give up, or live by the values I was raised with. Do it the cowboy way: Never give up and never quit," Sutton said at a campaign kickoff last year on his family's ranch.
Sutton has since taken in more than $1.2 million — the campaign says he's on track to raise more than any previous Democratic candidate for South Dakota governor — running as a "pro-life and pro-Second Amendment" moderate and anti-corruption champion seeking to bolster his base by attracting Republican and independent voters in heavily conservative South Dakota.
The 34-year-old community bank investment executive has much to overcome: a nearly 100,000-voter GOP advantage and a top-tier opponent, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who has won four terms in Congress and easily triumphed in her June primary election to succeed Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Sutton in May reported having about $880,000 in the bank, while Noem had more than $1 million.
Sutton has branded Noem "politics as usual," contending residents are sick of partisan divisions and that he wants to represent all of South Dakota. Sutton recently chose a Republican businesswoman (she switched parties) to be his running mate.
Wearing his cowboy hat and rolling his wheelchair down a line of people at the Sioux Empire Fair, Sutton's standard greeting was, "Billie Sutton, running for governor." He quickly encountered a Republican.
"I don't care much about party affiliation," Sutton said. "I just think we need to do what's right."
Steve Jarding, a longtime Democratic strategist, said Sutton is making the campaign about his vision, not about his party, and enjoys a strong family name — his grandfather was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1978. Jarding said Sutton can appeal to mainstream Republicans, particularly supporters of Noem's primary opponent, Attorney General Marty Jackley, whose loss under a barrage of negative ads from Noem may have left a lingering division in the state GOP.
Jarding said Sutton "could break that drought, and Republicans could feel fine about it."
De Knudson, a moderate Republican and former Sioux Falls city councilor, switched her support to Sutton after Jackley's loss. It was a text message from her son on primary night asking Knudson to back Sutton — cemented later by his pick of former Republican Michelle Lavallee as lieutenant governor — that led Knudson to hold a recent campaign fundraiser at her Sioux Falls home.
"After being a senator for eight years, Billie has created a record that is very, very moderate, like so many of you are, about open government, transparency and really reaching across the aisle," Lavallee told those who attended.
But Sutton's strategy to transcend party labels didn't sway 28-year-old computer programmer Adam Jungers, who asked Sutton at the fair, "As a pro-life conservative, why should I vote for you?" Afterward, Jungers said he would stick with Noem.
Noem — first elected to Congress in 2010 — said her values match South Dakota's, invoking a campaign pledge to not raise taxes nor grow state government, improve transparency and fight federal intrusion. She said Sutton is surrounded by liberal Democrats who support Planned Parenthood and labor unions.
"What Democrat Billie Sutton says and what he really believes and what his supporters believe are two very different things," Noem said.
But Sutton did vote for a 20-week abortion ban in 2016, and his campaign notes his support this year for a resolution endorsing South Dakota's right-to-work status.
This legislative session, Sutton focused on government transparency, early-childhood education and economic development, but came out of the Republican-controlled Legislature with few victories. Sutton said he launched the governor campaign over frustration with corruption in South Dakota and the GOP-led repeal of a voter-imposed government ethics overhaul in 2017.
Voters will decide a similar "anti-corruption" ballot measure this year, and Sutton has made government integrity a major focus of his bid.
Fellow Democratic Sen. Troy Heinert said Sutton approaches lawmaking with the attitude of someone who rides bucking horses for a living: "110 percent focused."
"What's been bad for him personally has been good for South Dakota," Heinert said. "He could still be riding broncs at the National Finals Rodeo, but ... he didn't let his accident stop him."