Over the past year, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has gotten attention for speeches she’s given to rooms full of Republican supporters, bragging that she “never shut down” her state, COVID be damned. She’s been traveling a lot, showing up to glad-hand in Iowa, speaking at CPAC, making noise on Twitter. Joe Sneve, a reporter at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, says it’s obvious why: She wants to be president. And he thinks Noem’s rise shows that for Republicans on the campaign trail, “it’s become almost more important to have the right enemies than the right allies.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Sneve about how Noem’s laissez-faire approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her political fortunes, and how South Dakotans feel about her most recent stunts. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Kristi Noem started in politics in 2006, when she won a seat in the South Dakota Legislature. She went on to run for Congress in 2010, the year of the Tea Party wave. From the moment she arrived in Washington, Kristi Noem was polished. She was camera-ready. But she wasn’t quite popular. When she ran for governor in 2018, the race was kind of a squeaker for a conservative state. She beat the Democrat by just 3 points.
Joe Sneve: She was never beloved. Whereas John Thune is beloved in the state of South Dakota, Noem was just kind of acceptable to folks. And now she’s sort of beloved by most folks because she didn’t put them in masks and shut down their businesses and whatnot. So whereas she didn’t have this celebrity status, even among Republicans in the state, before COVID, she does now.
I don’t know if she could see the writing on the wall. Part of me thinks she kind of lucked into it. Because there was a time in March of 2020 when we could have easily taken the route of Minnesota and North Dakota and Nebraska, where we had more heavy-handed restrictions. I know there was a really heated meeting in her office that led to the direction that they were going to take, where there was more people in the room who were saying, let’s play it safe and shut down and do the things that everybody else is doing. But there was a couple voices in the room who said no, we need to stand alone here and protect liberty and not overreact, and essentially those are the voices she listened to. And then it became the cases didn’t come the way they were modeled, the deaths didn’t come the way they were modeled. So then she felt validated, and then she started getting national play for it. At that point, it kind of became a brand for her.
South Dakotans have an independent spirit. We don’t like being told what to do by government, and while we were watching our neighbors all around us having to stay home and not go to work and things like that, I think South Dakotans by and large appreciated getting to make their own decisions.
It’s hard to tell if she lucked out because cases didn’t rise the way some scientists thought they would or whether she made the right call for her state.
And I guess that’s up for debate. We have over 2,000 deaths, and we’re definitely in the top half of per capita deaths, so it’s not like we avoided it. Our hospitals were never at capacity, but there was a lot of people in them. And some folks say that that could have been avoided if we would have taken more restrictive actions, and other folks say that it was inevitable and we just got through it, we ripped the band-aid off and moved on with our lives. So whether or not that was the right way to do it, people still debate about that.
She got a lot of pushback for the Sturgis motorcycle rally and having fireworks with the president at Mount Rushmore in the middle of all this. But it never seemed like those decisions rebounded on her, even though plenty of people said they were poor choices at the time.
Yeah, part of that is because she’s protected. South Dakotans are by and large conservative, and there was never any political hammer that came down locally. And we didn’t see these events cause a lot of problems for the state afterwards, as far as spikes in cases—you know, outsiders bringing in COVID and then getting Grandma in Rapid City sick or anything like that. There wasn’t really any high-profile accounts of that stuff happening.
Is that because it didn’t happen or because people left the state after, say, the motorcycle rally?
Most of the people that go to the motorcycle rally aren’t from the state, so yeah, they probably took it all home with them. There were cases definitely linked to the rally and one death determined to have been linked to the rally. But, you know, they’re bikers. Folks were gonna show up to that town whether it was an organized event last year or not, which is sort of why the city of Sturgis decided to have the event, because they wanted to kind of control it instead of having a free-for-all. And she encouraged communities to do their own approaches, and she didn’t push back on the communities that issued mask mandates and she didn’t push back on communities that had business restrictions.
One of the advantages Kristi Noem has is that she’s been able to remain ideologically consistent throughout COVID.
Yeah, I can follow that, for sure. She preaches local control and left it up to the local—because South Dakota’s so diverse, too, what’s good for Sioux Falls isn’t necessarily good for the town of 200 people an hour away. I think that has guided some of those decisions.
So you think locals really appreciate her at this point?
Yeah, for that. But I don’t know how much South Dakotans even think about COVID anymore. It’s certainly not dominating the conversation at the coffee tables in the morning like it had been. Lately we’re talking a lot about cannabis and broadband and we’re getting back towards, actually, policies and projects.
But is your governor getting back to that, or is she still looking for the triggering issue?
That would probably be a fair assessment. We only have a legislative session that meets two months out of the year, so the rest of the year she’s kind of free to travel and shake hands and build her rapport with her constituents. And whereas in the past that’s what governors would do in state, now she’s spending some of that time out of state.
She sticks her neck out and involves herself in the national conversation, which doesn’t have much to do with what’s going on locally. It comes down to brand building and trying to get her name out there.
One of the ways she did this was she sent National Guard troops from South Dakota to the border. Can you explain that story?
Yeah, so Texas and Arizona, their governors issued a letter to other states asking for help to manage the border crisis. I think in the letter it actually asked for law enforcement resources. Well, Noem decided that she didn’t want to send law enforcement because she wants the police to stay here and protect our communities. So instead she was going to send 50 members of the South Dakota National Guard down. And then she announced that this was going to be paid for by a private donation from a Tennessee billionaire. He’s a Trump supporter.
Is that even legal?
Well, I’m trying to figure some of this stuff out because they wouldn’t even tell us how much it was. Typically, Texas would have reimbursed these costs to the state of South Dakota. I don’t know that there’s anything illegal about it, like explicitly illegal.
Seems like a little bit of a shell game, moving the money around.
Yeah, well, it definitely is. It’s so unique and unprecedented that it’s just not accounted-for in law.
And you can see how this works for Noem, because she’s drawing people’s attention back to this culture war issue of immigration and sort of putting herself in the center of it, even though she’s not in a state where she needs to do that at the moment.
Well, and South Dakota’s very conservative, so I think people are supportive of using our resources to help stabilize the border. But it raised a lot of eyebrows, even among her allies, that they would use private money to cover this expense. There’s a billboard right now running in Sioux Falls that says, “South Dakota National Guard Not for Rent.” It ran last week on the other side of the state.
She also got herself involved with the local anti-trans legislation. Originally, like a lot of conservative politicians, she supported anti-trans legislation that was coming out of her colleagues in the statehouse, and then once it reached her, she didn’t want to sign it.
Yeah. So every year there’s bills to touch on the trans issue. In the years past it’s been bathrooms. This time it was fairness in women’s sports, is how it was characterized. She tweeted that she was really excited to sign the bill when it gets to her desk, and then she actually told me, I don’t know if I’m going to sign it now. So then that became pretty big news. … All the folks who had supported the bill in the Legislature were like, what the hell is going on? You just told us via Twitter last week that you were excited to sign this bill.
It was all about money, it sounded like. She was worried that tournaments wouldn’t come to the state, and she doesn’t want to give up that NCAA money.
Yeah, she decided to veto the bill because she was scared of what the NCAA might do if this becomes law in the state of South Dakota. Sioux Falls hosts a lot of events, and a lot of folks book hotel rooms and things like that, and she didn’t want to lose out on that stuff. And some of her advisers are pretty strong members of the South Dakota business community. That became a really big point of contention between some pretty strong conservatives in the Legislature and the governor. She fractured some relationships with some traditional allies in the Legislature.
I wondered if the bigger relationship that she fractured was with more conservative national Republicans, because as part of this back-and-forth over the trans bill, she went on Tucker Carlson’s show and he called her out for this. She was certainly doing the thing that the broader party did not want her to do.
Yeah, that was a rough week or two following that for her, because there was tons of headlines out there like Noem is just like every other politician, bowing to special interests, letting the “woke” mob dictate what she’s doing.
She then took a fight directly to the Biden administration, and it was a fight over whether she could have fireworks. What happened here?
Yeah. So last year was the first year in a long time that they did fireworks at Mount Rushmore for the Fourth of July.
Because it was a fire risk, right?
Yeah. Well, under the Obama administration, the EPA and the National Park Service took more environmental action, and under Trump she got them to bring it back. And now Biden wouldn’t reissue a permit for this year, tribal communities didn’t want it, COVID is a thing still. And not to mention there was apparently some environmental issues that came with fireworks falling into some waterways last year. And there’s a drought going on. So that’s what the feds cited in saying no, you’re not going to have it this year. And she said that was an arbitrary decision. She didn’t like the reasoning. So she filed a lawsuit.
Noem lost her lawsuit against the Biden administration, but you say the ordeal still serves a political purpose for her. She can paint Biden as a killjoy, basically, and say his administration is a drag on the local economy. And you think that kind of rhetoric is all about 2024.
Yeah, I don’t know why else you would involve yourself in fighting with the federal government so much. You know, she warned at her State of the State that under Biden, South Dakota could be penalized for some of the positions that it’s taken and the fights that it’s waged. So if that was the case, then you think you might tone it down a little bit.
I wonder whether part of what she’s doing is using the media, because watching her, you realize the extent to which right-wing and sometimes left-wing outrages drive political coverage.
Well, she’s certainly using the media to get headlines. I hate writing stories about tweets, but you kind of have to sometimes. She tweeted [that] the feds were looking to relocate these migrant children that were at the border, and Noem said we’re not going to take them, and she tweeted, “call me when you’re an American.” And why else would you say that on Twitter, unless you were just looking for headlines? Because that was so inflammatory that we had no choice but to write about it. I thought that’s probably kind of insulting to the 15,000 non–American citizens that live in the state of South Dakota.
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