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Kristi Noem’s win makes her 1st female South Dakota governor

November 7, 2018
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FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2018 file photo, South Dakota Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a candidate for governor, speaks during a gubernatorial debate with Democratic challenger Sen. Billie Sutton in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP, File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Republican Rep. Kristi Noem called it “pretty humbling” to be elected South Dakota’s first female governor after stopping a surprisingly strong challenge Tuesday from Democrat Billie Sutton that put his party close to an office they haven’t held for decades.

But Noem didn’t make the milestone a big deal during her campaign, instead playing up her farming and ranching background and congressional achievements — including passing the GOP’s federal tax cuts — to win the historic victory. Meanwhile, Sutton sought voters across parties, casting himself as a moderate with pro-gun and anti-abortion views to push Noem until the end.

“I feel relieved,” Noem told The Associated Press early Wednesday. “We worked hard and shared my vision for the state, and I’m just very grateful that the people of South Dakota put their trust in me to be their next governor.”

A four-term congresswoman, Noem will trade Washington for tiny Pierre once she’s sworn into office in 2019. She replaces Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who couldn’t run again because of term limits.

Sutton’s campaign gave Democrats rare hope. His compelling life story — former rodeo cowboy who turned to politics after a paralyzing injury — brought him added interest.

A self-described “pro-life and pro-Second Amendment” moderate, Sutton portrayed himself as an anti-corruption crusader who would buck the status quo after financial misconduct scandals that grabbed South Dakota headlines.

Noem reminded voters that Sutton is a Democrat and tied him to 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She also asserted — over Sutton’s denials — that he backed a state income tax for South Dakota, one of seven states without it.

Noem said her experience helped her win, and now her priorities are focusing on education, filling workforce needs and dealing with public safety issues. Her lieutenant governor, state Rep. Larry Rhoden, told voters in one TV ad that Noem’s life experiences have prepared her to be an extremely effective governor.

She has promised to protect state residents from tax increases and more government regulations, improve state transparency and fight federal government intrusion.

Ramona Rupp, a Republican from Sioux Falls, said she supported Noem based on the congresswoman’s experience and because she seems like a hard worker. The 64-year-old retiree said she hopes Noem keeps her promise not to raise taxes.

“I just feel it’s time to get more females involved, too,” said Rupp, noting, though, that her vote is based on the best candidate, not on gender. “There’s always room for change, and, you know, she’s proven herself over and over.”

Noem, who has roots in ranching and farming, brought major strengths to the race: a nearly 100,000-voter GOP advantage, experience running statewide campaigns and support from the state’s dominant political party and its top officials. She also significantly outraised and outspent Sutton.

Noem started the favorite and ended the winner. An October poll showed the race as neck-and-neck, but Noem had gained ground in a survey released just days before the election. She claimed the momentum and encouraged people to vote.

Sutton said he wished Noem well after her victory and encouraged her to reach across the aisle to find common ground. He said his team “fought a heck of a fight,” but they were always underdogs. Sutton said he hopes Noem focuses on government transparency, overhauling campaign finance rules and tamping down the cost of higher education.

Noem’s transparency plan includes having state and local government board meetings livestreamed, creating a property tax toolkit that would allow taxpayers to see where their money goes and supporting a reporter shield law.

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For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics

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