“My guess is that, a year ago, most of you had no idea who I was,” South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem likes to say when she opens speeches, as she did with the 2021 CPAC crowd in February. She’s probably right.
Noem, a Republican, put in time serving in the South Dakota legislature before getting elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 and serving four terms as the Mt. Rushmore State’s sole member. But winning the very red state’s governorship wasn’t as easy as it should have been for a Republican in good standing. Noem only won the governor’s race in 2018 by 3.4 points in a state that former President Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 29.8 points in 2016 and Joe Biden by 26.2 points in 2020. Given her paltry margin—and the fact she only seemed to garner national headlines in 2019 due to her too-thirsty-for-Internet-buzz anti-drugs “Meth: We’re On It” campaign—she wasn’t really on anyone’s radar as a potential 2024 presidential contender.
Then COVID happened. And Noem became a star by throwing herself on the MAGA bronco. Whether it was hydroxychloroquine trials, anti-mask crusades, or later, inane election-fraud claims, Noem was eager to take the ride, earning raucous applause for her political risks.
Now that she’s bucked herself into the big 2024 rodeo, though, how long can she hang on?
The signal that Noem could be thrown aside at a moment’s notice came last month.
The South Dakota legislature passed a bill banning transgender girls and women from playing girls and college sports. On March 8, the same day the state senate passed the bill, Noem tweeted that she was “excited” to sign it. Then, the NCAA and major corporations started making unhappy noises, and Noem asked the legislature to make “style and form” revisions—not a “veto,” she insists!—and bring it back to her next session.
Her logic sounded reasonable enough. She says that the bill wouldn’t stand up to legal challenge as written, and that she would be better off forming a multi-state coalition to stand up to the NCAA together so that the organization wouldn’t make an example out of South Dakota. She quickly launched a website to show she was committed to getting that effort going. At the moment, it appears to be just an intake form for emails and phone numbers. The former NFL football player Herschel Walker, who is widely considered a potential GOP Senate candidate in Georgia, has signed on as a prominent supporter.
The conservative media outlets that Noem carefully courted over the last year weren’t buying any of it. National Review said her decision had been an act of “capitulation.” MAGA media activists unfit to link said much the same thing. Fox’s Tucker Carlson—perhaps also a 2024 contender?—beamed Noem in for an interview and sneered at her for vetoing what he described as a very popular bill in a very Republican state:
You are saying the NCAA threatened you, and you don’t think you can win that fight? . . . You don’t think you can win in court, even though the public overwhelmingly supports you nationally? And, so you are caving to the NCAA, I think what you are saying.
Carlson pressed her again in a follow-up question: “Why not instead just say ‘Bring it on NCAA, I’m a national figure—go ahead and try and exclude us, I will fight you in the court of public opinion and defend principle.’ Why not just do that?”
Noem said Carlson was “wrong completely,” but Carlson, who knows how to render judgment through his questions, made his point. Someone with real national support, ahem, maybe like the politically powerful Fox News host himself, would have signed the bill, said to hell with the detractors, and welcomed the fight.
She, in his judgemental, squinting eyes, was too weak.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Noem was supposed to be getting roses thrown at her feet from the Very Online stable of Trumpy writers for marching into the transgender culture war arena. Instead, she was being treated like a clown for botching it.
Did they forget all she’s done to endear herself to the Trump crowd?
Like how quickly she aligned with Trump and Fox News primetime hosts in the early days of the pandemic and championed hydroxychloroquine as a potential miracle drug? She raced so that her state would be the first to conduct clinical trials of its efficacy. Despite warnings from the FDA about the lack of evidence for the antimalarial drug’s effectiveness in treating COVID, she nabbed 1.2 million doses for her state’s residents.
Noem took a beating from the national media for the high COVID death toll in her low-population state and steadfastly clung to her mantra—uttered in numerous public appearances, including her CPAC speech:
South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is.
No governor should ever dictate to their people which activities are officially approved or not approved. And no governor should ever arrest, ticket, or fine people for exercising their freedoms.
It’s quite a shot against every other governor in America, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who came out just ahead of her in the (highly unscientific but symbolically significant) 2021 CPAC poll. See, Noem is willing to throw intraparty punches. Ask Nikki Haley. And, maybe in response to Noem, DeSantis killed his state’s COVID fines last month.
“We knew the science told us we couldn’t stop the virus,” Noem maintains. So, other than pursuing snake-oil cures promoted by Trump, she didn’t try. When, in April of last year, a huge COVID outbreak occurred at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls before Noem asked—not mandated!—it to suspend operations, nearly 1,300 people contracted the virus and four died; it was one of the biggest coronavirus hotspots in the country.
But, through it all, Noem bragged about keeping her state open and encouraged everyone to visit, too.
She rolled out the red carpet for Trump for a maskless, non-socially distanced Fourth of July fireworks display at Mount Rushmore. Before the event, Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle hosted a fundraiser, and pictures of the event showed Noem hugging Guilfoyle. Guilfoyle tested positive for COVID during the trip, but Noem wasn’t about to put any distance between herself and the Trumps.
For someone trying to position herself as the natural heir to Trump, Noem has it all—at least on paper. And everyone knows she didn’t become a political star until she started following Trump’s lead in 2020.
She knows it too—which is why she is sure to frequently pay homage.
When Trump came to South Dakota, she greeted the president with a replica of Mount Rushmore with his face etched alongside those of Washington, Jefferson, TR, and Lincoln. Standing before the stone-faced men on the evening of July 3, Trump delivered one of the most divisive speeches of his presidency, laying blame for violence related to Black Lives Matter protests on our nation’s schools. After the speech, Noem flew with Trump back to Washington on Air Force One, privately bending his ear for more than an hour.
Later that summer, Noem welcomed perhaps half a million bikers to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Anybody who knows South Dakota, or the Midwest generally, knows that Sturgis is a big deal. But anybody with a pulse last year knew that large gatherings during a pandemic were not a good idea. Hundreds of COVID cases were subsequently traced back to Sturgis attendees, and one study estimated that a whopping 267,000 cases originated with the gathering. (Noem dismissed that estimate as “back-of-the-napkin math.”)
The governor landed a coveted speaking role at the Republican National Convention and milked it for all she could. The Associated Press reported she requested that the South Dakota Department of tourism air ads on Fox News, narrated by Noem, that echoed the themes in her convention speech.
When fall came, she showed her penchant for memetastic gimmicks again with a “Less COVID, more hunting” pitch. She wrote in an op-ed that people “who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one.”
The disgraced Trump flack Corey Lewandowski, known for forcibly grabbing a female Breitbart reporter at a 2016 Trump campaign event, started showing up with Noem as an adviser at maskless out-of-state political events. He reportedly rated her against former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Haley as “the hotter, Trumpier, real American governor.”
Noem was so eager to get into TrumpWorld, she even went on the campaign trail for Trump with My Pillow guy Mike Liddell. And, in the days after the election, when Trump began unfurling his unfounded claims, Noem was right there for POTUS. On November 5, she tweeted, “Every Democrat-run state needs to clean up their election laws like Florida did.” After major media outlets called the election, she tweeted, “NO MATTER WHAT THE MEDIA SAYS THE ELECTION IS NOT OVER!”
She appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos on November 8 and was asked what evidence she had of widespread fraud. Noem responded with talking points dripping with Rudy Giuliani’s flop sweat. “People have signed legal documents, affidavits stating that they saw illegal activities. And that is why we need to have this conversation in court,” she said. ‘‘The New York Times itself said that there were clerical errors.”
She went on:
If you look at what happened in Michigan . . . we had computer glitches that changed Republican votes to Democrat votes. You look in Pennsylvania, dead people voted in Pennsylvania. So, George, I don’t know how widespread it is. I don’t know if it will change the outcome of the election. But why is everybody so scared just to have a fair election and find out?
A day later, Noem told her followers to go to Parler because “We need social media platforms that respect and protect FREE SPEECH.”
In mid-December, Noem raised some eyebrows when she withdrew her position as an elector for the Electoral College—opting instead to spend that day meeting with Trump, still sucking up to the defeated president. Then, she campaigned all over Georgia, tarnishing the Democratic Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as “Communists.”
And Trump’s July 3 speech seems to have stuck with Noem. Because after Trump’s supporters mobbed the United States Capitol on January 6, Noem seemed to borrow from what he said at Mount Rushmore. She blamed the violence on bad schools. She said she was “appalled” by the events, but “today, we have an opportunity to address the root cause of this problem: we must reform young Americans’ civic education.”
Noem is a diligent, dedicated student of the former president, no doubt. Perfectly poised for 2024, she can appeal not only to the MAGA crowd but old-school Republicans too.
Listen to her talk, and you’ll learn that she grew up on a farm and dropped out of college to take over the family business when her father died in a grain bin accident. That’s when she learned about the horror of estate taxes and started thinking about politics. Some two decades later, she finally earned that college degree as a married mother of three at the age of 40, in part by counting her time serving in the House of Representatives for internship credit.
Oh, and she’s drop-dead gorgeous, in a way that doesn’t come off as too prissy to brawl. The farm-tough former South Dakota “Snow Queen” understands the value of pageantry. Her arms look as if they are chiseled from stone, and she doesn’t hesitate to wield her rodeo garb, waders, and shotguns for photo ops. Don’t mock it. These qualities are irresistible to the types of voters who lapped up content from Roger Ailes and Donald Trump over the past few decades. She presents well to this audience.
To compare Noem to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is to underestimate Noem. Both women may like wearing camo and fringe, but they aren’t twins. Noem is far more careful with her words and calculated in building relationships with allies. Which is probably why the backlash on transgender sports came as such a surprise.
That may have been the moment she realized she wasn’t in as much control of her own political destiny as she thought.
One gets the feeling by watching Noem and MAGA media reaction to her is that they see her as a vehicle for their own purposes rather than an entity in her own right. And, right now, she’s walking the fine line between playing in the big ring and getting played.
When Noem was on her transgender rehab tour, she phoned Glenn Beck, who recognized Noem’s unexpected squish status. Beck told her that he wanted to “pick up” from the conversation she had with Carlson that “didn’t go well” and talk about building coalitions.
“It’s amazing how fast people can turn,” he said knowingly.
Noem laughed quietly and ruefully. “Ha, ha, yeah.”
Then, she let the frustration out:
When have you ever known me to cave, Glenn? I didn’t go through this whole last year being the only one to keep my state open in the entire nation and to fight for what was right and have everybody piling on, to cave on something like this. . . . I think a lot of times, we get bullied. We get bullied by the left, but the right can bully, too, and they’re not looking at the facts.
In the end, Noem found a way to appease the conservative crowd. For now, at least.
After making all the media rounds, she pivoted from her original strategy and banned transgender girls and women from competing in high school and college sports via a pair of executive orders. Her spokesman Ian Fury told The Bulwark that “The executive orders are a temporary solution to protect girls immediately. We still need legislative action, which is why we’ll be calling a special session in late May or early June.”
And so, with her boots, chaps, and cowboy hat, Noem hangs on for the next go-round.