Update: Final results, with all 698 precincts reporting, show Noem had 51 percent of the vote (172,894 votes) to Sutton's 48 percent (161,416 votes). Evans had 1 percent (4,844 votes).
Kristi Noem became South Dakota's first female governor on Tuesday night.
After hours of tallies showing the governor’s race too close to call, The Associated Press declared the Republican the winner over Democratic challenger Billie Sutton.
With 88 percent of precincts reporting by 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, Noem held 52 percent of the vote to her Democratic opponent Billie Sutton’s 47 percent. Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans received 1 percent of the vote.
The winner will serve a four-year term and succeed Dennis Daugaard, who served the maximum of two terms and earned $113,560 this year.
Noem has represented South Dakota in the state’s lone U.S. House seat since 2011; Sutton is the Democratic minority leader in the state’s Senate.
The race became surprisingly heated just weeks before Election Day, as polls emerged showing Noem and Sutton neck-and-neck. Just one day before the election, an Emerson poll showed Sutton only 1 percentage point down from Noem, with 5 percent still undecided.
Noem called in help from her Republican colleagues in Washington, D.C., in a last-minute push with Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham appearing at a Rapid City rally the day before elections. Sutton opted to host his election eve rally in Sioux Falls.
Both candidates amped up their campaign visits in the final days before midterms, often making stops in multiple communities in one day. And tens of thousands of dollars in last-minute contributions poured in for both candidates, up until Monday.
Both candidates received sizable contributions from out-of-state PACs and special interests. Noem raked in nearly $975,000 in out-of-state special interest dollars, according to her campaign’s most recent filing with the Secretary of State.
Sutton had taken in considerably fewer out-of-state dollars — $23,500 — by the time his campaign filed its pre-election report on Oct. 22, but then took in nearly $420,000 in last-minute contributions days before the election.
The candidates mostly stuck with their respective parties’ policy stances in their campaign promises. Noem vowed she would protect South Dakotans from tax increases, government growth and federal intrusion. Sutton said he would prioritize making health care affordable and accessible and investing in education.
Both candidates emphasized in their campaigns a need for more state government transparency and stronger campaign finance ethics, likely tapping into voters’ residual upset over scandals like Gear Up and EB-5 that have rocked the state government in recent years.