Kristi Noem appearing at a bull riding competition in Sioux Falls, S.D. on July 11, 2020. | Abigail Dollins/The Argus Leader via AP
David Siders is a national political correspondent for POLITICO.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — One Saturday last fall, around the opening of South Dakota’s pheasant hunting season, a crowd of businesspeople and political benefactors who’d come to meet and hunt with the state’s governor, Kristi Noem, trickled back to the Sheraton for dinner and an auction.
The whole weekend had been billed as a business recruiting event for South Dakota, and auction proceeds went to conservation efforts in the state. But the vibe was almost indistinguishable from a typical political fundraiser: an evening, closed to the press, where donors mingled with political staffers, where a governor thanked supporters, and where Tim Laudner, the retired Minnesota Twins catcher and hunting enthusiast, got held up for handshakes at the door — the mix of celebrity and personal access that defines a modern political career.
Projected on a screen in a ballroom was an autographed photograph of Noem and Donald Trump, which sold for $12,500. An Indian Motorcycle Super Chief Limited that Noem rode at the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., brought $27,500. There was a print of Noem on horseback; there was a rifle she’d hunted with. And you could also buy time with a politician who is widely considered a credible potential candidate for president or, more likely, vice president in 2024.
One donor paid $60,000 for a black bear hunt with Noem in Saskatchewan. (The auction program promised this would include not only “one of the best all-inclusive bear hunts Canada has to offer,” but also “spending time” with Noem.) Bids for a “guided trophy bison bull hunt” with Noem at Ted Turner’s Bad River Ranch in South Dakota topped out at $50,000.
Slipping out of the ballroom mid-auction and into the lobby, one of Noem’s guests rolled her eyes. “I left when the painting of Kristi went up,” she said.
The weekend did, in fact, amount to a lot of Noem, from “Governor Noem’s Invitational Pheasant Hunt” to “Governor Noem’s South Dakota Showcase,” to the dinner and auction, where Noem addressed supporters in front of an image of a pheasant taking flight. At “Governor Noem’s Acoustic Experience,” a small concert that immediately followed the auction, Gary LeVox, of Rascal Flatts fame, addressed Noem as “president,” then paused before correcting himself, “governor.”
A star of the coronavirus pandemic, Noem had become an unexpected Republican sensation in 2020 and into last year, at the height of partisan warring over the pandemic. As she theatrically defied mask and vaccine mandates and cast South Dakota as a “beacon of hope” for the skeptical and recalcitrant, she became a staple on Fox. CNN branded her “the female Trump,” while Trump himself encouraged Noem to primary her state’s “RINO” senior senator, John Thune (an invitation Noem declined). GOP state and county party chairs in early presidential nominating states began inviting Noem to speak at their events, and her stock rose among the Conservative Political Action Conference set. Last summer, she earned a personal takedown in the impeccably parlor-liberal pages of Vanity Fair — a badge of honor for any Republican.
But sustaining the GOP’s interest has proved more difficult as the pandemic lingers on. Noem has some built-in disadvantages as a national candidate: Her tiny state is not a locus of coastal media attention; its small agricultural economy limits her natural fundraising base. And even in South Dakota, Noem has suffered from a shift in public focus from Covid freedom to concerns that have proved harder for her to manage. She’s the target of a conflict-of-interest probe involving her daughter, Kassidy Peters; she waffled on legislation to ban transgender women and girls from playing women’s sports; she fumbled in the GOP’s curriculum wars, delaying a closely watched review of the state’s social studies standards. And she cut loose a close adviser, Corey Lewandowski, following accusations the former Trump campaign manager made unwanted sexual advances toward a woman at a charity event last year.
Two years from the next presidential election, what does Noem have her sights on, exactly? Normally, you might say she’s testing the waters for president, one of a generation of up-and-coming red state leaders positioning themselves as antidotes to a second Joe Biden term. But in the time of Trump, with a celebrity kingmaker still firmly in charge of the GOP, she’s also running to stay on his radar as a potential asset.
In Mar-a-Lago — where, if Trump runs in 2024, Noem’s fate as a running mate or potential Cabinet secretary will be decided — one Trump ally told me that there is a widely held appreciation for Noem’s “star quality.” If Trump runs and decides to select a woman as a running mate, Noem may benefit from critical comments Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, made about Trump following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol last year.
“Unless she blows up,” this person said, “she kind of hangs in there.”
But there is also a sense in Trumpworld, after watching Noem’s first term as governor, that she may not be seasoned enough for a national campaign, another person close to Trump’s operation said. She is being compared with Vice President Kamala Harris, a young politician with star potential but whose low approval ratings and office turmoil have not helped — and may be a drag on — her boss. “There’s a feeling she’s not ready,” this person said.
Noem’s Covid-charged rise in the Republican Party came on almost instantly, then sputtered — and now she finds herself a case study in how quickly a politician can build, and then fix, a reputation in her own party.
Not long ago — before her anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine mandate evangelism turned her into a conservative sensation — Noem was barely recognizable outside of South Dakota, and polled tepidly even inside her own, small state. Speaking at CPAC early last year, she said, “My guess is that a year ago, most of you had no idea who I was.”
In South Dakota, the attention Noem drew to herself initially was jarring. The state’s encounters with presidential ambition have been infrequent and short. There was the late Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate who got walloped by Richard Nixon in 1972; there’s Thune, who was seen as a potential candidate for president a decade ago and seriously considered it, but said “the timing did not feel right.” And for eight years, South Dakotans had become accustomed to a proudly unglamorous governor, Dennis Daugaard, who was generally well-regarded but so stiff he once listed “careful and responsible management” as his governing goal.
And then they got Noem, a politician who seems preternaturally suited to the folksy-yet-brazen style of modern heartland politics. She has a telegenic ease in crowds, and has developed a certain Trumpian flair: When the then-president visited South Dakota for its Independence Day celebration in 2020, she curried his favor by presenting him with a bust depicting him on Mount Rushmore. She promoted the massive Sturgis motorcycle rally amid a pandemic and campaigned around the country for Trump. When she went to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Tennessee last year, she flew there on the private jet of Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman and GOP conspiracy theorist-in-chief.
For South Dakota, Noem has been a skillful ambassador, and her Republican supporters see her as the face of the state’s current boom. The state’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation. Table cards at the auction in Sioux Falls asked, “Looking for a Home?” touting South Dakota as a place with “tons of opportunity,” a favorable tax climate, low cost of living and “no red tape in sight.” On the weekend of the governor’s hunt, bars and restaurants brimmed with out-of-towners drinking Busch beer, throwing darts and eating chislic, the cubed meat dish that’s effectively South Dakota’s official bar snack. Masks were nearly nonexistent and hunters fanned out on rural roads in trucks with out-of-state plates.
“She just went out there and pounded the sticks for South Dakota, and boy, it worked,” said Bill Napoli, a former Republican state lawmaker from Rapid City. “We have more people moving here, and we don’t even know what the numbers are going to be as far as an influx of people visiting.”
He said, “You’ve got to remember something: South Dakota has been 50th in everything for as long as everyone can remember. We were just a nice, quiet, docile state that never did anything. … She thrust us into the national limelight.”
Yet as alluring as Noem has been for conservatives amid the pandemic, politics shifts as fast as issues do, and “open for business” isn’t likely to be enough of a message for Noem when the public’s interest in Covid fades. Republicans watching the gubernatorial election in Virginia in November saw Covid fall off as a voting issue, surpassed by education and the economy and jobs. Even now, with the omicron variant surging, polling nationally suggests the pandemic is subsiding as a concern. For a politician who made her name on Covid, the question is what to do when the electorate moves on to other things. And Noem is struggling with something that bedevils a lot of ambitious state politicians: how to go big, or national, without seeming like they’re losing their touch at home.
“She got the Covid response exactly right in terms of how we feel about things back here, so that gives her some room to overcome some of her missteps,” said Mark Mickelson, a former South Dakota House speaker who supported Noem’s election in 2018. “Her getting this national profile and staying on Fox News and us staying open for business has been really good for South Dakota. … We’re in the conversation, and our state is booming right now.”
But lately, said Mickelson, whose father and grandfather were both governors of South Dakota, Noem “appears to be focused primarily on her own personal ambition, and there’s some concern that she’s neglecting things back home in South Dakota.”
“She’s going to have to start executing better,” he said.
Noem’s affiliation with Lewandowski exasperated staffers in an administration already afflicted by high turnover, and was seen by numerous Republicans in South Dakota as a mistake. Noem’s former chief of staff, Joshua Shields, cautioned her that Lewandowski’s presence was a liability before Shields left her office at the beginning of 2020, according to multiple Republicans familiar with the matter.
Late last year, Steve Haugaard, a Republican state representative and former speaker of the state House, announced a 2022 primary challenge to Noem, casting her as a jet-setting shill for corporate interests. “We need a full-time governor who’s focused on South Dakota, not on Washington D.C.,” he said.
Republican lawmakers in South Dakota have been looking into conflict-of-interest questions involving Noem following an Associated Press report that she summoned employees of a state agency to her office after they’d moved to deny her daughter’s application to become a certified real estate appraiser, an application that ultimately was approved. Noem has denied the meeting was improper, accusing the media of “trying to destroy my children.” But lawmakers were not convinced.
Spencer Gosch, the Republican state House speaker who was in a combine harvesting soybeans when I reached him, said “the specifics surrounding the circumstances are a little bit, how do I want to put this, they’re less than ideal.” Last fall, Kassidy Peters said she would give up her license.
In theory, Noem’s political horizon could be a long one. She turned 50 last year. She will likely win reelection in November. The black bear hunt with Noem in Saskatchewan is scheduled for May 2023, at the start of the presidential election cycle. And for a small-state governor, Noem already has enviable reach.
She is a regular on Fox News, thanks in part to the state installing a TV studio in the basement of South Dakota’s Capitol building shortly after she took office. (In another spate of redecorating, the Argus Leader reported in November that Noem spent “more than $68,000 in taxpayer money on rugs, sauna, chandeliers for state governor’s mansion.”) She has Breitbart’s devoted interest. She traveled recently to Ronald Reagan’s old ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., to participate in a town hall on Newsmax, where host Rob Schmitt said she has a “lot in common” with the former president.
“Everybody says, ‘We absolutely love your governor,’” said Jack Haines, whose Rapid City-based company, A&A Engraving Inc., was in Sioux Falls previewing its Colt 1911 pistol with “Let’s go Brandon” engraved on the barrel. (Haines said he’d considered putting a caricature of Biden on the gun, before deciding that might be “going a little bit too far.”)
When I asked Republicans about Noem in Sioux Falls and in Watertown, around where she grew up, I was told “she’s a hell of a woman,” or she’s “just like Sarah Palin,” or “a real South Dakotan.” Her supporters warmly recite the biographical sketch that Noem is now road-testing nationally — how she returned from college to the family farm after her father was killed in a farm accident; how she recently became a grandmother; how she connects her granddaughter to the Democratic president.
“Listen, I hate, I hate the world that we are giving her,” Noem said at a CPAC event last year. “I need you to help me save America.” And in South Dakota, a heavily Republican but tiny state of fewer than 900,000 people, the prospect of a President Noem or Vice President Noem doing just that is a point of pride.
“She should be president, actually,” said Loren Beld, whose excavating business now occupies an old school building in Hazel, S.D., that Noem once attended. “Follow right in Donald Trump’s footsteps. Kristi Noem has the same policies, same political view, but she’s a little nicer.”
But unlike Trump, Noem has to govern a state, which even in a pandemic means more than fighting Biden’s Covid policy. As her profile has risen, the conservative press has found missteps there to pounce on. Fox’s Tucker Carlson accused Noem last year of “caving” to business interests when she balked at a bill to ban transgender women and girls from playing women’s sports, instead issuing a partial veto and signing executive measures that the bill’s sponsor called “weak.” National Review savaged Noem when her administration began a review of state social studies standards, a process that has drawn criticism from both liberals and conservatives in South Dakota. (National Review asserted that under Noem’s management, “hard-left activists have taken over the writing of K-12 history and civics standards in ruby-red South Dakota.”) And it was a conservative website — the pro-Trump site American Greatness — that, in late September, smeared Noem with the accusation, based on unnamed sources, that she was having an extramarital affair with Lewandowski. Other outlets, finding no evidence of an affair, might have let the story go, but then Noem addressed it herself: She said on Twitter that “these rumors are total garbage and a disgusting lie.” It was then, officially, news.
For Noem, it’s this criticism from conservative media that presents the biggest risk — a reminder of the exacting purity tests that a still-Trump-obsessed GOP is imposing on candidates at all levels. Perhaps because of those attacks, among her supporters and advisers in South Dakota, there is a distrust of the media and protectiveness that borders on paranoia. Ian Fury, Noem’s spokesperson, declined to make Noem available for an interview, or even to let reporters in to cover her remarks at the auction, which did not exactly constitute Watergate-level material. (According to a recording of part of her speech provided by an attendee, Noem asserted that preserving outdoor traditions like hunting and fishing is good for children and that, “It really is about our kids.”)
The day after the auction, when Noem was scheduled to attend what the state Republican Party billed as a “public lunch” in Elk Point, S.D., I was turned back at the door again. And after I’d arranged with a teacher at Noem’s old high school, in Hayti, to review yearbooks from her time there, a district official called to tell me that the district’s policy was not to make old yearbooks available after all.
One of the yearbooks, from Noem’s graduating year, 1990, is online, and it would hardly seem problematic. One can see Noem acted in a school play, spoke at commencement — and, with several of her classmates, sang Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.” She was an honor student, an editor of the school newspaper, a cheerleader and played basketball. Near the back of the book is a photograph of her with the Pontiac Grand Am she won when she was named South Dakota Snow Queen.
It’s possible that Noem’s recent run of friction and bad publicity will turn out to be nothing more than a blip. She is widely expected to beat Haugaard in the primary and win reelection, and 2024 is still an eternity away. But the Trump ally’s suggestion that she still could “blow up” is not unfounded. Noem has come perilously close to doing so before. A rising star in the Republican Party since 2010, when she upset the state’s then-Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in the Tea Party wave that saw Republicans pick up more than 60 House seats nationally, Noem nearly lost the gubernatorial election for the GOP in 2018.
In a state where Republicans have won every gubernatorial race since 1978, an Argus Leader-KELO TV poll two weeks before the election, had Noem tied with Billie Sutton, a moderate Democrat and former rodeo rider. It took what the state’s Argus Leader newspaper called “a GOP rescue party” to save her campaign, and Noem ultimately won by just over 11,000 votes.
Nor were there special signs, pre-Covid, that Noem possessed political talent as a governor. Her first year in office, she launched a widely ridiculed anti-drug campaign with the slogan: “Meth. We’re on it.” She feuded with the Republican-controlled state Legislature over her opposition to legalizing industrial hemp, an issue on which she later relented, and tribal leaders banned her from the state’s sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation in response to her support for so-called riot-boosting laws that opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline said unfairly targeted them.
By the end of her first year in office, Noem was one of the least popular governors in America, with an approval rating of 43 percent, according to Morning Consult. At least one private poll at the time had her falling even lower, to just below 40 percent, according to multiple people familiar with the poll.
“People were really starting to worry she was screwing this up bad,” said one Republican in the state. “It was like a five-alarm fire. … Prior to the pandemic, she was in deep shit.”
Covid, more than for any other Republican politician in America, was Noem’s salvation. As caseloads took off in her state, she transformed into a middle-America champion of the GOP’s resistance to mask and vaccine mandates and stay-at-home orders, and to their personification in Anthony Fauci.
“She got on the Trump bandwagon and she completely changed,” Napoli said. “Either she went to Trump school or whatever Trump had rubbed off on her, or she had a latent conservative part of her body that nobody knew about, and all of a sudden she was just a bar- burning conservative that nobody knew was in there.”
He added, “And she’s been kicking ass ever since.”
By last summer, Noem was using her Covid credentials to not only raise her own profile, but to undercut other Republican governors in what is already a crowded field of potential candidates for president in 2024.
“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states, that they didn’t close their beaches, that they didn’t mandate masks, that they didn’t issue shelter-in-places,” she said at CPAC’s event in Texas in July. “Now, I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit, that their first instinct is to make the right decision. That they don’t backtrack and then try to fool you into the fact that they never made the wrong decision. So, demand honesty from your leaders.”
Back home in South Dakota, Noem’s critics fumed. It was true Noem never issued a statewide shelter-in-place order. But she was not entirely hands-off, either. In April 2020, Noem issued an executive order requiring people with serious underlying medical conditions and those over 65 in two hard-hit counties, Minnehaha and Lincoln, to stay home if possible. On top of that, her administration proposed legislation that would have granted the state’s health secretary the authority to order the closure of any public or private place, including businesses, schools or other locations, to prevent the spread of the virus. It was Republican legislators who rejected that idea.
“She’s not the governor that people think she is,” said Taffy Howard, a state representative and conservative hard-liner who has clashed with Noem and is challenging Dusty Johnson, the state’s Republican congressman, in his House primary this year.
“Everybody’s like, ‘We love your governor, she didn’t shut down your state,’” Howard said. “It’s the conservatives in the House that did not shut down the state … We forced her into a corner.”
“She is very much a politician. She goes whichever way the wind blows,” Howard said.
Howard’s view of Noem is now in the minority. The governor’s approval rating among Republicans in South Dakota, according to Morning Consult, jumped 8 percentage points last year, to 86 percent. And after nearly two years of watching her resist lockdowns — including some proposed by Republicans — her credibility on the conservative approach to Covid appears firm. In Sioux Falls, the Republican mayor, Paul TenHaken, who publicly called for a shelter-in-place order in 2020, putting him at odds with Noem, began a conversation with me by saying, “I’m not interested in engaging in any hit piece on our governor.”
“I think in some areas of the country, there’s almost a jealousy that creeps in: ‘We have to wear masks and we have to do this stuff, so you do, too,’” TenHaken said. “In South Dakota, we are a fairly humble state, and so when someone like our governor gets national attention and starts to get the spotlight on her … there are some people who don’t like that.”
He said, “She is one tough lady, because that lady gets more crap thrown her way than any politician I’ve ever seen at her level. It’s been a tough year, and she’s just resilient.”
To TenHaken, there is more to Noem than Covid. He described her as a “woman of faith,” a “woman of values,” and a politician who “has a heart for preserving what has made South Dakota great — the outdoors, the hunting, the freedom.” He recalled that when Noem visited Sioux Falls to tour damage after tornadoes ripped through the town in 2019, he complimented her on her Nobull sneakers. The following week, she’d sent him a pair in his size.
“I was like, 'Wow, what an incredibly thoughtful thing to do in the midst of this chaos,'” he said. “That’s a side of Kristi Noem I wish more people would see.”
Noem was not wearing sneakers, but boots, a jean jacket and black gloves when, on the day of the auction in Sioux Falls, she drove to Brookings for South Dakota State University’s eclectic Hobo Day parade.
While Johnson rallied college Republicans at their float — “Good energy … I love it!” — and Thune walked up ahead, Noem crisscrossed the parade route, past Nick’s Hamburger Shop, Brookings Furniture Co. and the Main Street Pub.
“How are you?” she’d ask, or “You doing good?” She told a handful of young women to “stay warm, guys,” and when she greeted five little girls, she gave them high-fives.
“Look at all these girls,” Noem said. “Love it!”
The response to Noem from the sidewalks was at times misogynistic. A college student yelled at her, “Kristi, you’re so hot!” A man standing with a female companion catcalled at her.
But then came two teenage girls, bolting out of a store when they saw Noem walk past and tracking her to the end of the parade route, where they waited to take a photo with her before she climbed into the back of an SUV. One elderly woman told Noem, “We’re so proud of you,” while Layke Wold, a 15-year-old with a fan page for Noem on Instagram, jumped from his seat to pose with her in his “Noem-DeSantis ‘24” shirt.
When an older man yelled, “Kristi for president!” she gently flicked her wrist and said, “Don’t.”
Outside of South Dakota, Republicans see some potential for Noem — as a presidential candidate if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, or as a vice presidential prospect if he does. Several county party officials in the early nominating states of Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada told me they’ve tried or are trying to book her for events. In Nevada, the state party chair, Michael McDonald, said that when he polls activists about who should headline party functions, “They all say Kristi Noem.”
But there are signs that Noem is already suffering from the public’s weariness of pandemic politics — and from her failure to stand out on anything new. In February 2021, the CPAC straw poll, while a narrow measure of GOP activists’ passions, had Noem running second only to DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 presidential primary in which Trump doesn’t run again, at 11 percent. Jim McLaughlin, the pollster who conducted the straw poll, called her “a rock star” at the time. By CPAC’s July meeting last year, Noem had tumbled to 3 percent. In some national polls, she barely registers at all.
Noem is doing everything a small-state governor can to reinsert herself into the national conversation. Last month, to bolster her credibility on the GOP’s big culture-war issues, she released draft legislation to prohibit teaching critical race theory in South Dakota schools, to codify her executive orders related to transgender women and girls in sports and to guarantee students an opportunity to pray at the start of every school day. To a standing ovation in her State of the State address on Tuesday, she pledged to bring forward legislation to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and she proposed eliminating fees for concealed carry gun permits in the state.
On the morning of her address, she appeared on Fox with Ben Carson, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, to promote a Trump-inspired pledge to, among other promises, “restore honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.” It was good for a TV hit, but it’s hard to find a Republican who isn’t talking about abortion or the Second Amendment or critical race theory, and there was some snickering in Pierre when Noem, who touts herself as the first candidate to sign the document, invited Carson to attend her State of the State address, introducing him as “a friend of mine and a hero in his own right.”
One longtime Republican donor to politicians in South Dakota, including Noem, said, “She’ll do everything she can to make it to the national stage in 2024, or a Cabinet appointment. But without Covid, she seems to struggle.”
Noem may still be able to overcome the declining salience of a pandemic. On the morning after the auction in Sioux Falls, as Noem’s guests began to check out and catch flights out of town, Dan Genter, who was a co-chair of Trump’s “Sportsmen for Trump” coalition in the 2020 election, was eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Genter, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based RNC Genter Capital Management, described Noem as a “special” politician with “strong self-awareness.”
“As far as being in the right place at the right time, she’s a female candidate who can round out a ticket,” he said. “She pulls women, and she pulls family values, which the Republican Party is struggling with a bit.”
In the short term, Genter said, Noem lacks the notoriety and fundraising network that some other potential candidates have already developed. And, he added, “You’re not going to be able to ride Covid policy forever.”
But the presidential election is not for another two years. And 2024 won’t be Noem’s last shot; she’s a full generation younger than Trump and Biden.
When I asked Genter what might come next for Noem, he shrugged:
“She’s got a quarter of a century of political life yet,” he said. She’s got plenty of runway.”