The Rise of Kristi Noem

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S1: So, Joe, do you think that your governor wants to be president?

S2: Yes.

S1: So just like, yes, flat out,

S2: I don’t know how you would come to that conclusion after kind of watching the last 18 months,

S1: Joe Sneve covers Governor Kristi Noem for the Argus Leader in South Dakota. You sound a little exhausted when you say this.

S2: Yeah, well, I’ve been covering it, you know, for about a year, pretty nonstop and trying to keep up with. It’s kind of exhausting.

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S1: Over the last year, Governor Noem has gotten a lot of attention for these speeches, she’ll give to rooms full of Republican supporters bragging she never shut down her state covid be damned. She’s been showing up to glad hand in Iowa, giving speeches at CPAC.

S2: I mean, she travels a lot. She’s constantly making noise on Twitter. You know, she’s certainly not micromanaging the state departments. That’s a good way to put it.

S1: All this exhausts Joe. Not so much because of all the miles reporters like him have to travel just to keep up with their governor. His exhaustion is more about the way she’s running with a brute force. It sometimes blows back on Joe himself. Like back in February when Noem called on Joe at a press conference, he was trying to ask her about shifting guidance on masks from the Centers for Disease Control.

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S2: Joe, you’ve been resistant to implement massive mandates. You’re skeptical of their efficacy.

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S3: I never said that, Joe. Don’t put words in my mouth.

S2: Well, and the CDC had just started recommending to masks. And we know she didn’t issue a mask mandate early on. So I was actually trying to have fun with her. And I was trying to ask, like, so you won’t do a single mask mandate. What about DOMAs mandate? I mean, it was a silly question.

S1: Only Joe never really got to tee up this softball to do that.

S2: So now that the CDC is recommending to math, well, the

S3: CDC has changed their recommendations many, many times. In fact, we’ve seen the CDC change their recommendations based on political pressure in the past.

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S1: Within hours, this clip was getting circulated by Noem supporters who are calling Joe a hack and praising the governor for her. You go girl energy. That’s precisely how you have to respond in this moment. It’s a beautiful

S2: masterclass. Bravo, Governor. I got maimed and the headlines were watch, you know, watch Noem school liberal reporter who wants a double mass mandate. I actually was talking with some of her staff. I mean, they’re conscientiously looking for those soundbites that can and I can’t I don’t know for sure that they’re sending them out, making sure the right people see these clips. But it wouldn’t surprise me if if they’re doing that. Yikes. Yeah, it’s interesting covering them, covering her.

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S1: And if you’re asking yourself why pay attention to a possible candidate for president this far out from an actual election? Joe says paying attention to Kristi Noem is going to tell you something about what campaigning as a Republican right now even means.

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S2: Now it’s become almost more important to have the right enemies than the right allies. And we’ve saw that under President Trump and Noem is kind of taking a page out of his playbook.

S1: So it’s campaigning on negativity rather than positivity.

S2: Yeah, a little bit.

S1: Today on the show, the rise of Kristi, Noem and her all out battle to keep your attention. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Kristi Noem grew up in a farming family. She went to a local college but dropped out and moved home to help the family after her dad died in her 20s. Joe Sneve calls this a pretty humble, pretty typical background for someone in rural South Dakota. She started in politics in 2006. That’s when she won a seat in the state house.

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S2: You know, she had a rising through the ranks. I think she was assistant majority leader. You know, she’s attractive ladies. She’s charismatic. She’s a good candidate. I’m sure folks in the Republican Party saw a good team member there.

S1: So from the South Dakota legislature, Noem went on to run for Congress in 2010. That was the year of the Tea Party wave.

S3: Week after winning her election, Kristi Noem is already grabbing national headlines. And I think all South Dakotans agree that they make better decisions what to do with their dollars than the federal government does. South Dakota’s congresswoman elect is in the lead for a newly created Republican leadership slot, a slot that’s being interpreted as an olive branch to freshman members. And no coincidence, the Tea Party. She joins

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S1: us. From the moment she arrived in D.C., Kristi Noem was polished shoes, camera ready. She stuck to her talking points. She parried like an expert with the press.

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S3: So is that a yes that you would consider cuts in Social Security in some way, shape or form? Well, if that was a simple answer, I think we would have had solutions before this. So certainly it’s not going to be a simple solution that we can come down to and have a yes or no answer. But we certainly do need to have some adult conversations, which we haven’t seen.

S1: But Kristi Noem was not 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 three points.

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S2: She was never like beloved, whereas like John Thune is beloved in the state of South Dakota. You know, Noem was just kind of like acceptable to folks. And now she’s like sort of beloved by most folks because, you know, she didn’t put them in mass and shut down their businesses and whatnot. So whereas she didn’t have this kind of celebrity status, even among Republicans in the state before covid she does now.

S1: So covid was kind of this chance for Governor Noem to make herself into that beloved person that she wasn’t back in twenty eighteen.

S2: Yeah. And I don’t know if she saw 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, North Dakota and Nebraska where we had more heavy handed restrictions. I know there was a really heated meeting in her office that kind of 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 of voices in the room who said, no, we need to stand alone here and protect liberty and not, you know, overreact. And essentially, those are the voices she listened to. And then it became, you know, the case is. 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, you know, at that point, it kind of became a brand for

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S3: for those of you who don’t know, South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close.

S2: Now, South Dakotans have an independent spirit. We don’t like being told what to do by government. And, you know, while we were watching our neighbors all around us, you know, having to stay home and not go to work and things like that, I think South Dakotans, by and large, appreciated kind of getting to make their own decisions.

S1: Yeah, I kind of wonder. It’s hard for me to tell from the outside 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.

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S2: And I guess that’s up for debate. We have over 2000 deaths and we were definitely in the top half of like per capita deaths. So it’s not like where we avoided it. You know, 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. You know, we ripped the Band-Aid off and moved on with their lives. So whether or not that was the right way to do it. People still debate about that.

S1: 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 kind of rebounded on her, even though plenty of people. Said they were poor choices at the time.

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S2: Yeah, part of that is because she’s protected. You know, South Dakotans are by and large conservative and there was never any, like, political hammer that came down locally. And we didn’t see, like, these events cause a lot of problems for the state afterwards as far as like 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.

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S1: So is that because it didn’t happen or because people left the state after, say, the motorcycle rally?

S2: 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. I know there was some there were cases definitely linked to the rally and one death determined to have been linked to the rally. So but, you know, they’re bikers, folks. We’re going to show up to that town whether or not 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 mass mandates and she didn’t push back on communities that, you know, had business restrictions.

S1: Well, it’s interesting because like I think one of the advantages Kristi Noem has is that she’s been able to remain ideologically consistent throughout covid. And what I mean by that is I compare her to a governor like Abbott in Texas, also a Republican. Both of these politicians, Governor Abbott and Governor Noem, talk about liberty a lot and local control. But Governor Abbott, when local communities like Houston, Harris County started trying to issue mask mandates, he tried to come in as the governor and say, no, you can’t do that and sort of step into this bigger role. And it seems like Kristi Noem didn’t do that, which is more ideologically consistent with what she says she wants to be doing.

S2: Yeah, I can follow that for sure. You know, she preaches local control and left it up to the local because what’s good for South Dakota so diverse, too, you know, what’s good for Sioux Falls isn’t necessarily good for the town of two hundred people an hour away. And I think that’s that kind of has guided some of those decisions. Yeah.

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S1: And you say that locals in South Dakota have come to a new understanding of Noem and now you think. She’s able to sort of enjoy the fact that. Her constituents say, like, we got to stay open and our rates didn’t spike the way that we thought they might. So you think you think locals really appreciate her at this point?

S2: Yeah, for that. But I don’t know how much South Dakotans even think about covid anymore. Certainly not dominating the conversation among, you know, at the coffee tables in the morning. Like like it like it had been, you know, lately we’re talking a lot about cannabis and, you know, broadband. And I mean, we’re getting back towards actually policies and projects.

S1: But is your governor getting back to that or is she still looking for the triggering issue?

S2: That would probably be a fair assessment. Obviously, we only have a legislative session that meets two months out of the year. So the rest of the year, which she’s she’s kind of free to travel and shake hands and build her rapport with their constituents. And whereas in the past, that’s what governors would do instead. Now she’s spending some of that time out of state.

S1: After the break, the many ways South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, is trying to raise her political profile. Having seen so much success with her approach to covid, Governor Noem is now experimenting with applying her own personal brand of Great Plains individualism to other topics, and she’s trying to get as much attention for her efforts as possible. But generating attention building a personal brand can mean getting messy, making mistakes.

S2: She sticks her neck out and involves herself in the in the national conversation, which doesn’t have much to do with what’s going on locally. So you have to I guess that does it comes down to brand building and like trying to get her name out there.

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S1: I mean, one of the way she did this was she sent National Guard troops from South Dakota. To the border, and it was a sort of funny thing to do, because it’s sending them a long way, but then also because of how she funded it. Can you explain that story?

S2: Yeah. So Texas and Arizona, other governors have like issued a letter to other states asking for help to manage the border crisis. I think in the letter it actually ask 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 private donation from a Tennessee billionaire. He’s a Trump supporter.

S1: Is that even legal?

S2: Well, I’m trying to figure some of this stuff out because they wouldn’t even tell us how much it was. Typically, you know, Texas would have 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.

S1: Seems like a little bit of a shell game, though, moving the money around.

S2: Yeah, well, it definitely is. This is so unique and unprecedented that it’s just not accounted for in law.

S1: 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.

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S2: Well, and, you know, 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, her allies, that that they would use private money to cover this this expense. There’s a billboard right now running in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, National Guard not for rent. It ran last week on the other side of the state. You know, I think South Dakotans generally don’t mind that we’re sending troops to the border. People are scratching their head of why you would use private money. And it feels like we’re sort of, I don’t know, pimping out our National Guard

S1: or making the National Guard into mercenaries or something. It’s just it’s just it’s just a weird approach.

S2: Yeah. And it’s you know, I asked, you know, why not just hire Blackwater? You know, it was an unforced error.

S1: I think she made another error when she got herself involved with the local anti Tranz legislation. And this was interesting to me because you could see. Governor Noem changing her mind like originally, like a lot of conservative politicians, she supported anti trans legislation that was coming out of her colleagues in the state House and then once it reached her, she didn’t want to sign it.

S2: Yeah. So, you know, every year there’s there’s bills to deal with or to touch on the trans issue. And this time around, it was, you know, in the years past, it’s been bathrooms. This time it was fairness. And women’s sports is how it was kind of characterized. You know, she tweeted that she was really excited to sign the bill when it when it gets to her desk. And then, you know, she actually told me at a chamber thing, I can’t remember what the event was. And she said, I don’t know if I’m going to sign it now. So then that became pretty big news that now she’s, like hesitant and signing this thing.

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S1: Were you surprised when she said that to you?

S2: Yeah, I knew I had quite the story to break when she said that all the folks who supported the bill in the legislature like, what the hell is going on? You just told us via Twitter last week that you were excited to sign this bill.

S1: It was all about money. It sounded like where she was worried that tournaments wouldn’t come to the state. And she’s she doesn’t want to give up that NCAA money.

S2: Yeah, it really it was 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. We have Sioux Falls hosts a lot of events. So in a lot of folks book hotel rooms and things like that. And they don’t 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 and the governor. She she fractured some relationships with some typical traditional allies.

S1: Well, I wondered a little bit if, like, the bigger relationship that she fractured was with more conservative national Republicans, because as part of this back and forth over the transorbital bill, she went on Tucker Carlson show and he called her out for this.

S2: And so you’re caving to the NCAA? I think that’s what you’re saying.

S3: No, that’s not right at all, Tucker. In fact, you’re wrong completely. I’ve been working on this issue for years. In fact, several years ago, she

S1: was certainly doing the thing that the broader party did not want her to do.

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S2: Yeah, that was a rough week or two following that for her, because there was tons of headlines out there that, you know, Noem is just like every other politician bowing to special interests, letting the, quote, woak mob kind of dictate what she’s what she’s doing.

S1: Yeah. I mean, after after pissing off her local legislature colleagues, she then took a fight directly to the Biden administration. And it was a fight over whether she could have fireworks. And it just seemed like a weird fight to pick. Can you talk a little bit about what happened here?

S2: Yeah. So last year was the first year in a long time that they did fireworks at Mt. Rushmore for the Fourth of July

S1: because it was a fire risk, right? Yeah.

S2: Well, under the Obama administration, like the EPA and the National Park Service took more environmental action. And under Trump, you know, she she got the got them to bring it back. And now Biden wouldn’t reissue a permit for this year. Tribal communities didn’t want it. covid was a thing 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 it just and there’s a drought going on. So, I mean, that’s what the feds cited and saying, no, you’re not going to have it this year. And, you know, she she said that was an arbitrary decision, that she didn’t like the reasoning. So she says she filed a lawsuit.

S1: Governor Noem lost her lawsuit against the Biden administration. But Joe Sneve says the ordeal still serves a political purpose for her because she can paint Biden as a killjoy, basically, and say his administration is a drag on the local economy. Joe says that’s not about Nome’s next gubernatorial election. That kind of rhetoric is all about 2024.

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S2: Yeah, I don’t know why else you would involve yourself in fighting with the federal government so much. And she warned at her state of the state that, you know, under Biden, it could be, you know, 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 and you think you might you might tone it down a little bit.

S1: Yeah. I mean, I wonder in some ways, looking at all the attention Kristi Noem has been getting, whether part of what she’s doing is she’s using the media. Because watching her, you kind of realize the extent to which right wing and sometimes left wing outrages derive political coverage.

S2: Well, she certainly, you know, using the media to get headlines and I hate writing stories about tweets, but you kind of have to sometimes, you know, she tweeted, you know, 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 like, call me when you’re an American or something like that. Ouch. Yeah. I was like, why else would you say that on Twitter? Unless you were just looking for four headlines, you know, because that was kind of so inflammatory that we had no choice but to write about it. Yeah. You know, it doesn’t account for I mean, I thought it probably kind of insulting to the to the fifteen thousand non American citizens that live in the state of South Dakota, you know.

S1: Joe Sneve, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

S1: Joe Sneve is a reporter for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and that is our show. Before we go, I’ve got a quick question for you. With a Delta variant surging, it can be hard to know exactly what the safety protocols are, even if you’re vaccinated. So I want to know how this time has affected your life. Are you masking up again? Have your personal rules changed? And are some of those rules now changing again? Leave us a voicemail at two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. What Next is produced by Davis Land Danielle Hewitt Elena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. Tomorrow in this field, Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here with a brand new episode of What Next TBD. That is our Friday show. I will get you back here on Monday.