UNDER cover of darkness, in a small town between the Missouri River and the Nebraska border, 19 people met on January 29th in a conference room to decide the presidency—of the Burke Riding Club. Nobody seemed to want the job. “There are only two ways to get out of your responsibilities: you have to die or move, and I don’t plan on doing either,” warned Todd Hoffman, a rangy, affable man. “Or you can run for governor”, said Billie Sutton, the club’s current president. “That’s not necessarily an out, Billie,” joked Mr Hoffman. “Governors really don’t do that much.” Mr Sutton, who is in fact running for governor, laughed harder than anyone else in the room.

His quest seems the longest of shots. South Dakota last elected a Democratic governor in 1974. Its delegation in Congress is entirely Republican; Republicans hold overwhelming majorities in both of the state legislative chambers; and Donald Trump won nearly twice as many votes as Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yet Mr Sutton has both a plausible path to victory and lessons to teach other Democrats about how to compete in rural America.

He also has a compelling personal story. Mr Sutton, a fifth-generation South Dakotan, began rodeo riding when he was four years old. He attended the University of Wyoming on a rodeo scholarship, eventually becoming one of the top 30 riders in the world. In 2007, as he was preparing for the National Finals Rodeo—the year’s most prestigious competition—his horse flipped over, pinning him against the chute. He was paralysed from the waist down.

“I was very independent, and focused on my rodeo career,” says Mr Sutton. “But I was raised to never give up, never quit, no matter the situation.” Following rehabilitation, Mr Sutton returned to Burke, first getting a job at a local bank and then winning a state-senate seat in 2010, when he was 26 years old. He is one of just six Democrats in the chamber.

Ryan Maher, a Republican senator, believes Mr Sutton will give Republicans “the biggest challenge they’ve had in 30 years.” The main divide in South Dakota politics, he posits, is not between Democrats and Republicans but between urban and rural regions. That works to Mr Sutton’s advantage. As a country politician, he understands rural issues and voters. As a Democrat, he stands to do well in the state’s more liberal urban areas. His personal story should resonate with South Dakotans of all stripes.

Roping them in

In the general election Mr Sutton will probably face either Kristi Noem—who has spent the last seven years in Washington as the state’s sole House of Representatives member—or Marty Jackley, who has spent nearly a decade as the state’s attorney general. For someone running a campaign focused on making government work for ordinary people, as Mr Sutton is, these are dream opponents, especially if their primary turns nasty. “If he can just get the state party to lay low,” says Mr Maher, “he has a fighting chance.”

The Democratic brand is often toxic in rural America, where it is seen as a party of coastal elites. But Western voters seem willing to pull the lever for the right kind of Democratic candidate. Although Mr Trump easily won Montana, for instance, that state has a Democratic senator and governor. For a brief spell last decade, South Dakota’s two US senators were both Democrats, as was its sole congresswoman. South Dakotans recently voted to raise the minimum wage. They also approved some sweeping campaign-finance reforms, of the kind that liberals adore—although the legislature balked at that.

Mr Sutton is a pro-life, pro-gun, church-going Democrat, just as Heidi Heitkamp—a Democratic senator from North Dakota—supports fracking and the Keystone oil pipeline. They are less prairie populists than prairie pragmatists, focused on kitchen-table issues and connecting to individual voters rather than joining the partisan vanguard. Their positions may be anathema in Brooklyn and San Francisco. But what works near the oceans does not always play in the plains.