Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

“She’s a stone-cold killer.”

That’s how a Republican insider I know described Kristi Noem the other day during a conversation about the governor’s race. And in that political context, it was a compliment.

Noem is hardly a hit-woman in her regular life, of course. She’s a 46-year-old wife and mother of three who loves horses and dogs and church hymns and kids’ sporting events. Pretty regular South Dakota stuff.

But just as she knows how to swing her shotgun at a rising rooster during the pheasant season, Noem doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger in a political campaign. And she’s a pretty good shot.

Never defeated in two state legislative runs and four straight U.S. House races, Noem now faces her biggest challenge since she beat formidable Democratic incumbent Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010.

Noem was the new kid on the statewide political block back then, and her upset win sent the already faltering Democratic party in South Dakota tumbling toward irrelevance. Billie Sutton has become the best chance the party has to stop its painful descent.

This race is close, really close. That’s an assertion based not just on internal polling released by the Sutton campaign showing the Democrat with a 3-point lead. Reliable word has it that polling for the Noem campaign shows her with a similarly small lead. Either is within the margin of error of such polls. So it’s a statistical dead heat.

That in itself is a bit of a victory for Sutton less than a month before the election in a state that hasn’t chosen a Democratic governor since 1974 — a state where Republicans top Democrats in registered voters by 90,000 or so. And odds are still good that come Nov. 6 enough of those Republicans will “come home” to give Noem the victory.

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But that’s far from certain. And the next three weeks will be the toughest, most defining part of the race. Noem doesn’t flinch at tough. She showed that against Herseth Sandlin eight years ago and against Marty Jackley in the GOP primary last spring.

I wouldn’t call Sutton “a stone-cold killer” in a campaign. But it’s clear that despite a nice-guy image that seems genuine, the 34-year-old rancher and banker from Burke doesn’t flinch at tough, either. Why would he, given an inspiring life story that, by now, any sentient human being in South Dakota should know.

But for the sleep-walkers among us, a summary: Sutton was a hot young bronc rider who was paralyzed from the waist down when a horse fell on him at a North Dakota rodeo. He found the strength, support and will to start a new career, a family and a political life, one he hopes will take him to the governor’s chair.

Like Sutton, Noem has been pushing positive ads about herself. But she went negative weeks ago with a hard-edged attack ad against Sutton. We can expect similar attacks in the upcoming debates.

Sutton has lately shown some campaign callus himself with an ad including unflattering pictures of Noem and a foundation of facts creatively twisted into campaign rhetoric. I was a little surprised by that ad with more than a month left in the race. Sutton seemed to be doing pretty well without the nasty stuff.

Sure, you have to defend yourself. But I wonder how giving up the high ground on the attack-ad issue will affect Sutton’s standing with some voters.

It’s pretty tough, after all, to beat a stone-cold killer at her own game.

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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