“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.”