PIERRE, S.D. — With Republicans hungry to cultivate their next generation of national leaders, it is not a Capitol Hill comer or a veteran battleground-state politician who is stirring interest by fusing Trumpism with a down-home conservatism spin. It is the first-term governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, a rancher who delights in sharing images of herself shooting pheasants and riding horses.
Noem began drawing wider attention last year for cozying up to former President Donald Trump — so much so that she inspired suspicion that she was angling to replace Mike Pence on the 2020 ticket — and hosting Trump at a July 4 Mount Rushmore event where she gave him a model of the monument with his face included. Her defiance of coronavirus restrictions and her eagerness to project a rugged Great Plainswoman image helped her come in second in a 2024 straw poll of far-right conservatives looking for candidates if Trump does not run again.
But her approach to politics has sometimes made for rocky relations with her base. Late last month, she got herself into a showdown with the Republican-controlled state Legislature over her veto of a bill barring transgender girls from school sports. And as some party leaders were pressing her to resolve that fight, she prompted eye-rolling at home by inserting herself in an unrelated skirmish — over Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes.”
“We are in a fight for the soul of our nation,” she wrote on Twitter, picking a fight with the rapper over his endorsement of $1,000 sneakers featuring a pentagram and, ostensibly, a drop of blood.
If Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is widely seen as the brash heir apparent to Trump, and senators like Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton are attempting to put a more ideological frame on Trumpism, Noem is trying to cement her place as the only female Trump ally echoing the former president’s trigger-the-left approach among the upper tiers of potential 2024 candidates.
But her stumble on the trans bill planted some doubts among social conservatives, and her appearances on Fox News most weeks and her time spent at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago fundraising site have prompted griping in South Dakota.
At home, Noem’s apparent White House ambitions bother Republicans who want her focused on the state’s needs, even as some in the party relish the attention her rising profile is bringing to the tourism-dependent state.
She is now on her fourth chief of staff in just over two years; has an increasingly awkward relationship with John Thune, South Dakota’s senior senator; and has favored the national party circuit over building relationships in the turn-of-the-century state Capitol in Pierre.
“Let’s focus on the state of South Dakota right now,” Rhonda Milstead, a Republican state representative, said in an interview between floor sessions on the so-called veto day. “And if you’re going to run for governor in 2022, let’s focus on our state. I voted for her when she ran because I believe she cared about the state of South Dakota, so let’s do it.”
Noem’s approach is markedly different from the arc of other modern governors-turned-presidents, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Those politicians assiduously courted their states’ kingmakers, held up their legislative achievements as campaign calling cards and waited until they had been reelected to the governor’s office before auditioning on the national stage.
The question is whether that was then.
As she steps up her already-busy travel schedule — she was the keynote speaker at the Kansas GOP’s convention this month and will address Arkansas Republicans in June — Noem, 49, may represent the purest test of the potency of Trump-style pugilism.
“It’s a contest about who can trigger the media and Democrats the most, and Noem is trying to get in that conversation,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist and a veteran of presidential politics. “It’s, ‘Can I come up with something that’s going to inflame Rachel Maddow and raise awareness among conservatives because Fox will cover how much the left hates me?’”
In the post-Trump party, a willingness to confront the news media and do battle with the left, preferably in viral-video snippets, is more compelling to activists than amassing a record of achievement or painstakingly building coalitions. Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Noem received her loudest applause for saying that Dr. Anthony Fauci “is wrong a lot.”
Moreover, with Republicans having lost the presidency and both chambers of Congress after struggling among female voters, many in the party want to elevate a woman to their ticket in 2024, when Vice President Kamala Harris is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president or vice president.
“She is one of the strongest examples of a great Republican woman,” said Glynis Gilio, a law student, who waited with a few dozen other CPAC attendees for Noem’s autograph. “We really need that strong female conservatism to pack a punch.”
Russell Olson, a former South Dakota lawmaker who was elected to the Legislature alongside Noem in 2006, said Noem is “a conservative woman and can talk without regurgitating talking points, so she rises to easy consideration in my book.”
Olson, whom Noem reappointed to the state Game, Fish and Parks commission, is not the only South Dakota Republican eager to remain on the governor’s good side. A number of party officials and donors did not want to speak on the record about Noem’s political prospects, many of them pointedly observing that it is a small state.
The governor declined an interview and, in keeping with her public posture, had a spokesperson email to archly ask if the story would be “about next year’s reelection campaign?”
Other South Dakota Republicans are downright gleeful about the speculation — though not necessarily because they are eager to see her become president. “Love her or hate her, she’s the best resource South Dakota has going for it right now,” said Lee Schoenbeck, leader of the state Senate. “She’s got such a platform.”
Despite the state’s high COVID death toll per capita and the outbreak stemming from the Sturgis motorcycle rally that drew nearly 500,000 biker enthusiasts last fall, many Republicans in South Dakota believe that the governor’s opposition to shutdowns contributed to South Dakota’s lowest-in-the-country unemployment rate, kept tourists coming and made the state newly appealing to transplants.
Whether Noem ultimately lands on the 2024 ticket or not, she has made a name for herself nationally by re-creating South Dakota as a sort of red-state oasis for visitors, new residents and businesses.
She won the governorship by just 3 1/2 percentage points, a slim margin in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor since 1974. Her approval rating stood at just 39% at the end of 2019, according to a private Republican poll shared by a party official familiar with the results. By last June, three months into the virus outbreak, the same pollster found that 62% of the state’s voters approved of her performance.
Noem had a relatively modest profile during four terms serving in Congress and in her first year as governor. By the end of 2020, however, she had gained the notice of Trump, who was egging her on to challenge Thune in his primary next year.
She has disclaimed any interest in such a challenge. But her coziness with Trump and her hiring of the hard-charging Corey Lewandowski, the former president’s onetime campaign manager, has put a chill in her relationship with Thune, the second-ranking Senate Republican. Thune has been clear that he wants the GOP to ease away from being a cult of personality and focus on ideas.
“Thune wants to move on and can’t with a Trump clone in own backyard,” said Drey Samuelson, the longtime top aide to former Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
Noem plainly sees her opening as a Trump-of-the-prairie provocateur.
In addition to her ubiquity on Fox News — one segment featured her escorting a network contributor on the state’s annual buffalo roundup — she has taken to Twitter with gusto. And not just to troll rappers.
“This is how we do social distancing in South Dakota,” she wrote above a video of her shooting and downing a nearby pheasant, a clip that has drawn nearly 7 million views.
She also starred in a tourism commercial that aired nationally last year during the COVID surge. “We’re open for opportunity — and always will be,” Noem said as images of Mount Rushmore and galloping bison flashed on the screen.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of marketing to South Dakota.
At the confluence of Midwest and West, and bifurcated by the Missouri River, the state has relied on tourism since the early part of the 20th century, when another ambitious governor, Peter Norbeck, relentlessly promoted the development of a granite monument in the Black Hills that could lure visitors to the region.
Noem has shown a similar passion for making the state a destination, most memorably mixing tourism with politics by ensuring that fireworks could be displayed at Mount Rushmore to entice Trump there last year. South Dakota similarly trumpets its pheasant hunting, walleye fishing and even more flagrant tourist pit stops, like Wall Drug and the Mitchell Corn Palace.
“We don’t have a lot of industry in South Dakota, and we don’t have a lot of natural resources pumped out of the ground or mined, so when you have a state that’s basically ag and ranching, you need those out-of-state dollars,” said Ted Hustead, whose family owns Wall Drug, whose Western-themed collection of stores and restaurants is a major tourist attraction.
That need is what put Noem in a vise over the transgender legislation.
She initially said she would support the bill. But she reversed course after facing a backlash from South Dakota’s influential business community, which worried that the National Collegiate Athletic Association would pull moneymaking basketball tournaments out of the state.
Noem was pressed about her change of mind by Tucker Carlson in a rare adversarial Fox News interview, and the flap fueled suspicions among social conservatives.
“She says whatever she thinks she needs to say,” said Taffy Howard, a state lawmaker who has pressed Noem to disclose the details of state money she has been using for security on her frequent trips. “This was all about keeping her donors happy.”
The House overrode Noem’s partial veto of the trans bill, but the state Senate declined to take action, dooming the legislation.
Running for reelection with Trump’s support in a conservative state, Noem should be well-positioned next year. South Dakota, however, does have a history of spurning its politicians when their focus becomes more national than local.
“Tom Daschles and George McGoverns are examples of what happens when you don’t pay attention at home; you got to make sure you’re balancing that well,” said Marty Jackley, a former state attorney general who lost to Noem in the primary election for governor, alluding to two of South Dakota’s most famous figures.
Olson, Noem’s former colleague in the Legislature, said he nevertheless expected Noem to be a formidable candidate should she run for president. He learned his lesson, he said, after supporting her primary opponents when she ran for South Dakota’s lone House seat in 2010 and then for governor in 2018, and he was “not going to get the third strike.”
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