Pro-life Democratic cowboy wants to be governor of South Dakota: What's faith got to do with it?

The New York Times had what was — in many ways — a lovely story this week about a pro-life Democratic cowboy campaigning to be the next governor of South Dakota.

However, the piece fell short in one key area. Since this is GetReligion, think faith.

More on that in a moment. But first a bit of important background: In case you’re not familiar with politics in the conservative-leaning Mount Rushmore State, no Democrat has won the governor’s race in that rural state since 1974.

So if Billie Sutton were to win, it would be a big deal.

On the positive side, the Times story was colorful and full of interesting details. It opens with this vivid scene:

BROOKINGS, S.D. — First came the Republicans, all smiles and matching blue T-shirts as they marched in this college town’s annual Hobo Day homecoming parade. Then the tractor team rolled past, and the dairy club, and the Corn Palace Shriners.

Finally, at the end of the line: the Democrats. Behind as usual.

Farmers and ranchers from this rural state once sent liberal icons like George McGovern to Congress, but these days, Democrats have all but vanished into the plains, a stark example of how far the party has tumbled in rural America. They hold no statewide elected offices in South Dakota. They make up less than 20 percent of the State Legislature. Their numbers are shrinking so fast that they rank below registered independents in a dozen counties.

But on a sunny Saturday, shaking hands and nudging his wheelchair up the parade route, came Billie Sutton, a 34-year-old state senator and onetime rodeo rider who is making a surprisingly competitive run for governor against South Dakota’s four-term Republican congresswoman, Kristi Noem.

Mr. Sutton is running as an anti-abortion conservative Democrat with cowboy cred and a stirring life story. His supporters think he can show Democrats how to start rebuilding the party in socially conservative states where the ag-heavy economy rises and falls with rain cycles and soybean prices.

Good stuff, right?

But as I kept reading, I crossed my fingers. Would the Times go all the way, I wondered, and explain the reasons for Sutton’s opposition to abortion? Would religious beliefs come into play at all?

Or would the story be, as we at GetReligion like to refer to it, haunted with holy ghosts?

I’m afraid I’ve always given away the answer up high.

The Times never delves into why Sutton takes the position he does on abortion.

As for religion, the only hint of it in the story is in reference to Sutton’s Republican opponent:

As Ms. Noem nodded and answered their questions, she pitched herself as an experienced chief executive who was just as South Dakotan as Mr. Sutton. When a voter asked her why they should elect yet another Republican governor, Ms. Noem said she saw her character was forged by working a ranch, running small businesses and teaching Sunday school, not simply being a Republican.

Hmmmm. Any reason why Noem might bring up Sunday school in this race? Might a candidate’s faith come into play for South Dakota voters?

While the Times ignores the religion angle, Sutton certainly does not on his own campaign website. On the “Meet Billie” section of his site, the candidate touts his faith:

On the family ranch, Billie learned South Dakota values: rugged individualism tempered with a heart for community and neighbors, a faith in God, a never-say-quit attitude, with a heart for people and a desire to build a better life for each generation to come.

And later, Sutton includes an entire section focused on his faith:


Billie Sutton knows it’s more important to live by God’s plan for his life than it is to live by his own plan. What Billie has been through taught him what it means to truly live by faith: faith in God, faith in our community, and faith in our values. Faith is what powers us forward regardless of what challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as a state.

As our next Governor, Billie will make sure that every South Dakotan has the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given potential.

Billie is a lifelong member of Lucas Baptist Church, where he often provides music and plays the guitar. He has led a number of devotional services at rodeo camps and on the rodeo circuit.

Evidently, Sutton considers his faith an important part of his candidacy, even if the Times does not.

Does that faith factor into how he comes down on abortion?

I’d sure love to know.

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