South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s election-year struggle with fellow Republicans in the Legislature has drawn criticism that she’s neglecting her job for the White House, but the resistance may actually help her national brand rather than tarnishing it.
The first-term governor has traveled to Florida in recent weeks to speak at a large rally of conservative activists, announced on Fox News the publication of an autobiography and lambasted President Joe Biden’s energy policies. as Russia invaded Ukraine.
Back home, the politician trying to pose as the country’s most conservative governor faced a considerable challenge from members of her own party. They have derailed key parts of his agenda on issues including abortion, school prayer, COVID-19 vaccine exemptions and how racism is taught in schools.
Republican pollster Brent Buchanan says that in Donald Trump’s GOP, such intraparty squabbling isn’t a liability and can even be a boon for a politician trying to curry favor with the former president and voters who support him. .
“It helps him if they don’t pass (his program) more than if they did,” Buchanan said. “Trump prepared Republican leaders to think about infidels in their own ranks.”
In a recent Statehouse setback for Noem, Republicans rejected his plan to keep K-12 classrooms free of “critical race theory” – an academic concept that has turned into a political rallying cry to the right. They then passed a bill applying to universities, but not before they ruled over its scope.
Noem started this session by presenting an agenda that amounted to a wish list for social conservatives. But she had to navigate a legislature divided between conservatives pushing the state to take tough stances on social issues and a GOP establishment more likely to focus on bread-and-butter issues. Lawmakers rejected about half of the proposals the governor outlined in his state of the state address at the start of the session.
Noem has long displayed a willingness to fight with the Legislative Assembly, but acrimony boiled over this winter. Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch accused the governor of chasing headlines and television appearances rather than doing the groundwork to build legislative support for his proposals at home.
Noem has shown invaluable political theater skills in Trump’s Republican Party and last month won the former president’s endorsement for his re-election campaign. Her social media feeds are filled with images of her riding a motorcycle at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, riding a horse carrying an American flag, showing off a flamethrower and chasing pheasants.
But her run on the list of Republican contenders for the White House suffered a major stumble last year when she reneged on her promise to sign a bill that would have banned transgender girls and college-age women from participate in school sports that match their gender identity.
In an effort to appease angry conservatives, Noem pushed a ban on transgender athletes through the Legislature this year, promoting her proposal with a barrage of TV ads on Fox News that claimed she “don’t never backed down” on the issue.
With this element of the national party, at least, it seems to have worked.
“I think it really fixed his image,” said Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project. “It definitely made me a lot more supportive of her to see her sign this.”
But some people in both parties see this bill, and others, as largely aimed at Noem’s national ambitions.
“You have a governor trying to get his name out there and unfortunately that’s what a lot of these bills are – they are to be used for election materials, not to affect real policy change,” he said. said Democratic Senator Troy Heinert. “Seems to me like we’re trying to top the crazies in Texas and Florida.”
Noem embraced some of Trump’s bombardments, swearing at fellow Republicans on Twitter when they do something she doesn’t like. But it’s an approach that has sometimes backfired in the small-town government of Pierre, where lawmakers pride themselves on decorum and often refer to each other as “friend” or “good representative” during debates.
She claimed two Republican lawmakers were acting like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” when they launched a ban on vaccination mandates last year. As talks with fellow Republicans over the state budget fell apart this week, she took to YouTube to accuse them of ‘corruption’ for hosting a closed-door budget briefing with the attorney general. of State.
“I’m screwed anyway no matter what I say,” Noem said of her particularly strained relationship with Gosch, who accused her of interfering in an impeachment investigation of the attorney general in an accident. deadly traffic. “That’s probably been one of the biggest struggles I’ve had just because I know he’s looking for a reason to blame me for everything.”
“A lot of bridges have been burned,” said Jon Schaff, professor of political science at Northern State University. “There’s a rump part of the Republican Party that just doesn’t agree with Kristi Noem.”
Even lawmakers who were once allies of the governor said they were often left out after daring to challenge her.
The “breakdown is just not about staying in touch with people, it’s not communicating,” said Republican Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who was nominated to the Legislative Assembly by Noem but became a vocal critic after Noem effectively killed the trans athlete bill.
The drama at home may not matter if Noem pursues higher duties. A decade ago, U.S. Representative from Minnesota Michele Bachmann — known more for advocating on far-right social issues than for legislating — took her polarizing image to an early run in the 2012 GOP presidential race. before collapsing.
For now, Noem says she is focused on getting re-elected later this year. She won her first term in 2018 just 3 points ahead of a Democratic state legislator, Billie Sutton, who had a compelling personal story as a former professional rodeo cowboy who overcame paralysis to stand forge a second career in politics.
The race is likely to be very different this year. Noem raised a record $11.8 million and is known in the red state as the governor who kept businesses open during the pandemic.
Some of its backers are already looking beyond November — and beyond South Dakota.
“There will be plenty of people who will raise his flag, whether to be President Trump’s running mate, if he decides to enlist, or as a bona fide candidate for the Republican nomination himself,” said Ken Blackwell, co-chair of the pro-Trump America First Policy Institute.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.