South Dakota Democrats struggle to find good statewide candidates.

That’s not a surprise to anyone who has been awake for the past decade. The Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson glory years are long gone and there are few encouraging faces in waiting.

One of the exceptions is Billie Sutton. The Burke rancher and state senator announced Wednesday he is running for governor in 2018. It was a closely watched decision that fills at least one of the big slots with a credible candidate.

Still: How did they mess it up so badly?

Loyal Dems are probably a bit perplexed at that statement. They’ll point to the lovely rolling green hills of Sutton’s ranch that served as a background for the event. They’ll talk about his great story – nicely told in the announcement video – of how Sutton was paralyzed in a rodeo accident. They highlight his deep South Dakota roots, life in ranching, commitment to good government and that he’s an all-around swell guy.

That’s all true and makes for a tidy package to take on the likes of Congresswoman Kristi Noem or Attorney General Marty Jackley.

NOTE: I don’t have a dog in this fight. Got it? This is not to say that I want Republicans or Democrats to win whatever. These are my observations. It’s what I would tell the Sutton camp if they asked, which they haven’t, and won’t, I hope.

But as I see it statewide elections today – if you want to change the status quo – won’t be won in Burke, or Huron, or Mobridge, or Tabor.

Increasingly the focus is on the Sioux Falls Metro Area. It’s not just because there are more people – there are – but that there are more people who can potentially be won over.

I know, I know, I know – big city bias and all that.

However, it’s true.

That doesn’t mean that every statewide candidate needs to be a product of the Sioux Falls public school system. That’s not it at all.

Sutton for South Dakota Video
Billie Sutton via YouTube

Billie Sutton could be a great candidate. He could be governor.

To do that he has to connect with the middle class households in the four to six counties surrounding Sioux Falls.

These are voters who are less likely to carry long-standing South Dakota biases. They are families facing real challenges in day-to-day living. They are less dogmatic and perhaps open to new ideas about government.

This is not to suggest there aren’t available voters elsewhere, but they tend to be more predictable. They are identified and targeted. There’s not much new going on out there that could switch someone who has supported the long line of Republican powerhouses to suddenly switch over to the Dems.

Sure, agriculture is important – vitally important -- to the economy of South Dakota.

But it’s not cattle prices or crop insurance that concerns the mother of two in southeast Sioux Falls who’s just trying to make ends meet without losing her mind.

To be blunt, the Democrats introduced Billie Sutton to the state by putting him up on a barren stage in the middle West River ranch country.

They emphasized rural life, solid work ethic and calf roping. It's a beautiful South Dakota scene that we like to romanticize.

But it doesn't look forward.

Democrats haven’t held the governorship since Dick Kneip in the mid-70s. They need to change and refocus the core issues they are built upon. They need to find some way to attract middle class households from Harrisburg to Hartford to Brandon.

But first, they need to think about what it looks like.

Patrick Lalley will launch a new talk show on KSOO-AM on June 19 from 3 to 5 p.m. Follow Patrick on Twitter @Bald_n_Surly, on Facebook at

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