Noem’s balancing act: Big ambitions, South Dakota reelection

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — They had waited in the desert heat in a line that wrapped around the block and now the excitement was palpable when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem took the stage in a suburban Phoenix convention hall. “She’s our governor!” someone yelled.

Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor in Arizona who hosted the event this past week, stood beside Noem and joined in the praise. She called Noem an “inspiration” who stood up for families against intrusive government mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The warm reception was familiar to Noem, who has made such appearances part of building her national profile as a potential 2024 White House contender.

“I wish I could vote for a woman like that,” Lake said. “But I don’t live in South Dakota.”

If Noem has ambitions beyond her state, she must first take care of political business back home: winning a second term in November.

Many expected her to cruise to victory in a Republican-dominated state against a Democratic opponent without statewide experience. But her frequent out-of-state travels, as well as recent ethics stumbles, have given Democrats license to dream of an upset — or at least making the race close enough to raise questions about Noem’s viability on a bigger stage.

Drey Samuelson, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said few people gave Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith much of a chance when he announced his campaign for governor, given Smith’s lack of name recognition and Noem’s massive fundraising advantage. Republicans have almost doubled Democrats on voter rolls and Smith’s highest political experience was leading House Democrats — a beleaguered band that has dwindled to eight members.

But Smith has run a shrewd race by seeking to turn Noem’s ambition against her, Samuelson said.

“Everyone I talk to, both Republicans and Democrats, believes that he has closed the gap on her,” he said.

Noem did not grant an interview request for this story. Her campaign spokesman, Ian Fury, said Noem “has never taken a single election for granted.”

“She works hard for her constituents, she works hard on the campaign trail and she is going to run through the finish line,” he said.

Her recent stop in Arizona, which was also the site of a family wedding, was just one appearance in more than a dozen states this campaign cycle.

Noem’s campaign has argued that lending a hand to fellow Republicans helps advance the conservative cause. But she has also paid to boost her campaign ads on Facebook in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire — important early presidential primary states — and granted several interviews where she warmed to the idea of running for the White House.

The governor sailed through spring and summer, releasing an autobiography, creating a nationwide fundraising network that amassed nearly $12 million and publicly reconnecting with Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. Noem had severed ties last year with Lewandowski after he was accused by a donor of making unwanted sexual advances at a fundraiser that Noem and Lewandowski both attended.

Smith, with $900,000 raised for his campaign, has gone around the state in his pickup, visiting every county in his long shot challenge. Panning Noem’s out-of-state trips has been a recurring theme of his campaign.

“We need a leader that’s focused on the state of South Dakota, that’s working for the people and that truly cares about what’s best for the state,” Smith told The Associated Press.

Smith, a real estate agent who has also worked as a teacher and coach, has cast himself as a moderate and so far has run a mostly upbeat campaign. During his lone debate with Noem, he only briefly mentioned ethics complaints that have dogged her in recent months, including her intervention with a state agency in the application by one of her daughters for a real estate appraiser’s license. The state ethics board, on a matter first reported by the AP, found evidence of misconduct but has not revealed its action against her.

Michael Card, a former political strategist and professor at the University of South Dakota, said Noem has made herself vulnerable on those issues, while also irking many teachers and school administrators by naming a conservative college in Michigan to help remake the state’s social studies standards. Noem also faces questions about whether she can win over women, especially after abortion emerged as a key election-year issue.

Noem’s abortion stance, without exceptions for rape and incest, may be out of step with South Dakotans, who voted in 2006 and 2008 against legislative attempts to completely ban the procedure.

“There are some lingering questions about whether she is ready for prime time,” Card said.

If nothing else, Smith seems to have Noem’s attention.

She recently came out with an ad that tied Smith to President Joe Biden, who won 36% of South Dakota’s vote in 2020. The governor grabbed hold of an issue Smith had pressed for years by promising to repeal a state tax on groceries. She also returned to campaigning quickly after announcing a back surgery she initially said could require several months for full recovery, with appearances in her traditional stronghold of Rapid City as well as the Arizona visit.

Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, played down the idea that a narrow Noem victory would hurt her down the road. More important, Stewart said, is whether Noem is showing leadership on issues such as the economy, crime, parental rights and education that are important to broad groups of voters.

The grocery tax repeal was just such a move, along with a promise by Noem to expand parental leave opportunities.

But Casey Murschel, 71, said she plans to vote for Smith. A former GOP state representative in the Sioux Falls area, Murschel said the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, led her to leave the party and identify as an independent. She said she trusts Smith to focus on governing the state and to advocate for abortion rights.

“Kristi has gone Hollywood,” she said. “She has basically turned her back on South Dakotans. We’re like props for her.”

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Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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