South Dakota’s governor Kristi Noem has gained significant fame within the conservative movement, moving her from the relative tranquility of South Dakota’s local politics to the wider national stage. Her notorious performance at CPAC, her decision to host a fundraising event at Mar-A-Lago last week, and her record as a governor of South Dakota has made her a viable option in the eyes of many conservatives today, in fact, she ended second on the famous CPAC straw poll (without Trump on the ballot) conducted during the conference.
Noem won the South Dakota governorship in a close 2018 election, where she beat her Democratic opponent by a slim 3.5% margin, less than 13,000 votes. However, according to a poll conducted by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiessman Center for Democracy of the University of South Dakota, her approval ratings are a bit more comfortable than her tight victory in 2018. According to the survey, conducted last November, 53% of respondents approved of Noem’s performance in 2020, while 40.9% disapproved.
Outside of North Dakota, Kristi Noem has made a name for herself due to her positions on two of the issues that are defining the political debate on today’s America: COVID restrictions, and cultural issues.
Kristi Noem: No lockdowns, no mask mandate
Governor Kristi Noem has been adamant about her refusal to implement strict measures to contain the spread of COVID since last year. South Dakota was the only state to not mandate masks, enforce lockdowns or shelter in place, in fact, her first executive order responding to the crisis gave recommendations to both businesses and individuals.
In her own words, the approach of the government of South Dakota towards the COVID pandemic was to “provide our residents with the science, facts, and data. Then we ask all South Dakotans to take personal responsibility for their healths (…) and the health of our community” as she wrote in an Op-ed published at the Wall Street Journal and as she has proudly posted on her social media.
Noem also has some strong economic data that she can show to Republican voters, who are more likely to be more worried about the economy impact of the outbreak than the health effects. According to the latest data of the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Dakota has a 3.2% unemployment rate, an impressive number when we consider that is almost half of the 6.2% national rate.
Kristi Noem made this approach very clear during her CPAC speech, where she said that it was the government who crushed the economy, not COVID, relied heavily on the conservative principles of small government and individual responsibility, and highlighted the fact that in South Dakota businesses never closed and schools remained opened.
Republican hopefuls know that the strict lockdowns and measures implemented by Democratic governors like Cuomo or Newsom will not be seen kindly by the GOP voters when they go to the polls in four years, which is why Republican governors like Greg Abbott have decided to take their states back to normalcy as soon as possible. Kristi Noem never had to lift the restrictions, she never imposed them, and she is ready to let everyone know it.
However, Kristi Noem also has to face the other side of her COVID record. According to the CDC, South Dakota has a rate of 215 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitant and almost 13,000 confirmed cases per 100 thousand residents. To put this into perspective, California has a death per capita rate of 138 and 8,000 confirmed cases, while Florida had a death rate of 148 and 8,947 cases per 100 thousand people. Sure, North Dakota’s COVID data is not as bad as that of New York City, where the official death rate reaches a terrifying 357 per 100,000 people, but is certainly not a great look.
Although South Dakota has rolled out a relatively successful vaccination program, with almost 340,000 doses administered, Governor Noem will be treading dangerous waters when putting her COVID response on the spotlight. While not implementing draconian restrictions of the likes of California and New York will definitely play well among the Republican electorate, specially when framed within a rhetoric of small government and individual liberty, the data on deaths and hospitalizations might not be as friendly for the governors’ political prospects.
Strong social conservatism
Kristi Noem has also made a name for herself by being an ardent supporter of the popular social causes in the conservative movement, understanding that a strong stance on those issues that might be the difference in a potentially crowded primary field in 2024. She has had showed a good and acute political instinct during this age of cultural fights and outrage.
For example, she famously replied “not on my watch” to a Ben Shapiro tweet asking when would the most radical progressives ask for the demolition of Mount Rushmore, during the midst of last summer BLM protests and the controversial debate about monuments that ensued. She followed that public move with a very notable rally with President Trump on Mount Rushmore on July 4th, which many could argue started her rise to national prominence in the conservative movement.
More recently, Gov. Noem has also proposed some legislation in her state aimed at preventing transgender girls to participate in female sports. A move that will, of course, be criticized by the left but that will certainly position her as a defender of conservative values in the minds of many GOP voters.
Noem’s political pitch would probably simple, yet effective: she would sell herself as a true conservative who believes in the importance of small government that does not tramples the individual rights of the citizens, while also concentrating more on the defense of core American values, since focusing exclusively in tax cuts and economic issues is “not good enough”. In other words, she will want to combine the libertarian DNA of the Republican Party while also adopting the combative rhetoric that characterized the Trump years.
Kristi Noem has many challenges in the future, the first one being her reelection bid for the governor’s mansion in 2022. South Dakota is a solidly Republican state, but her tight 2018 race shows us that nothing should be taken for granted and an electoral defeat in the state can risk her political future irreparably.