FORT PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The last time South Dakota voters elected a Democrat as governor was 1974. An uphill battle faces Jamie Smith as he runs for governor this year as he tries to break the Republicans’ streak of 11 consecutive victories. The House Democrat leader from Sioux Falls knows numbers aren’t on his side.

Republicans currently outnumber Democrats in voter registration 289,817 to 150,659. Republican Governor Kristi Noem, who’s seeking re-election, reported a balance of $7,762,901.57 in her main campaign account as of mid-May, while Smith showed $110,268.13 in his.

But Democrats are coming off one of their closest contests in decades. Four years ago, then-U.S. Representative Noem narrowly defeated Democrat Billie Sutton. She received 172,912 votes to his 161,454. Overall, Noem won in 44 counties to Sutton’s 22.

Noem’s campaign advertising so far focuses on her riding a horse and emphasizes that South Dakota currently has one of the best, if not the best, economies in the nation. That’s at least in part the result of federal aid that Congress pumped into the states to offset the COVID-19 economic downturn and Noem’s hands-off approach to most restrictions.

Smith’s campaign meanwhile focuses on actions and positions that Noem took as governor, especially on two issues that will be on the 2022 ballot this fall.

He strongly supports expansion of Medicaid eligibility to 133%-plus of the federal poverty level, from the current 100%. Many of the Legislature’s Republicans tried to raise the bar so it would need 60% support to take effect, but South Dakota voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment C in the June primary.

Noem laid out her position on Medicaid expansion during the 2022 legislative session, saying it would cost more than expected and would take money away from other state government programs.

The other ballot issue this fall is legalization of recreational marijuana. South Dakota voters approved Amendment A 54% to 46% in the 2020 general election, but Noem’s lawyers convinced the South Dakota Supreme Court to declare it invalid. Smith strongly supports legalization of both recreational and medical marijuana.

Noem has also reversed herself on whether a special legislative session should be called in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Roe and Casey decisions and making each state responsible for setting abortion laws and regulations.

With the national decision, a law that’s been on South Dakota’s books since 2005 took effect making abortion illegal, other than to protect the life of the mother. Noem, along with Senator Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown and Representative Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids, initially issued a news release saying a special session would be held.

But late Friday, the three reversed themselves and issued another release saying they would wait for the regular 2023 session that opens in January.

Noem has been strongly anti-abortion. Her oldest daughter holds a position in South Dakota Right to Life. Noem had the state Department of Health approve rules and Noem then won approval in the 2022 session of a law restricting the use of abortion pills in South Dakota.

Meanwhile, South Dakota voters in 2006 and 2008 rejected the Legislature’s attempts to take abortion away.

Smith hopes to win among South Dakota’s third large group of voters, the 141,335 currently registered as independents or no-party affiliation. The South Dakota Democratic Party at its state convention last weekend adopted resolutions on Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization and supporting abortion rights.

Smith brought up the abortion point in his banquet speech last Saturday night: “Democrats, let’s stop letting Republicans talk like they own God. I have some news: you can be pro-choice and love your God. You can love this state and want it to be better,” he said.

Smith also is moving into relatively new political territory regarding every person’s worth.

“Every single person in this state has dignity. Every single person in this state matters,” Smith said in the speech. “To my LGBT friends, never forget that South Dakota belongs to you too. If you’ve ever been told that you are not welcome here, I am here to say that you are welcome here. To every minority, every immigrant, and every refugee, you are welcome here.”

Noem wouldn’t debate her Republican primary challenger, Representative Steven Haugaard, in any statewide forum. Meanwhile she was raising money outside South Dakota for her re-election campaign and possibly for a run for U.S. president.

Smith in his remarks last weekend showed he was aware that his opportunities to face Noem on stage will be limited.

“Running for governor of South Dakota isn’t something I’m doing for myself. I’m running for governor because we must do better. We need to give voice to the people in this state who know we’re better than the example that’s currently being set,” he said.

At A Glance

2018 results, 15 key counties

(Winner in boldface)

Beadle — Noem 3,182. Sutton 2,832.

Brookings — Noem 5,225. Sutton 6,372.

Brown — Noem 6,821. Sutton 7,338.

Clay — Noem 1,552. Sutton 3,039.

Codington — Noem 5,865. Sutton 4,697.

Davison — Noem 3,779. Sutton 3,398.

Hughes — Noem 3,749. Sutton 4,144.

Lake — Noem 2,843. Sutton 2,669.

Lawrence — Noem 5,984. Sutton 4,675.

Lincoln — Noem 12,894. Sutton 11,109.

Meade — Noem 6,413. Sutton 3,559.

Minnehaha — Noem 32,355. Sutton 37,450.

Pennington — Noem 22,944. Sutton 17,988.

Union — Noem 4,068. Sutton 2,544.

Yankton — Noem 4,121. Sutton 4,757.

Source: S.D. Secretary of State.