Mixed results as South Dakota’s Noem interferes in GOP racing

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — In the run-up to a possible presidential nomination, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem won the Republican nomination for a second term last week. Many of the nominees she hoped to vote for the Statehouse, however, did not have such a good night.

She had hoped to replace contrarians with personal allies in the Republican-controlled legislature that has consistently defied her wishes, so the governor sided with about a dozen candidates challenging incumbents. Two-thirds lost by Noem’s favorites.

The backlash was a reminder that while endorsements often attract attention and financial resources, they don’t always translate into voter support. It’s a lesson that Donald Trump, Noem’s ally, is learning as he fails, particularly in Georgia, when he tries to punish Republicans who have ripped him off. In last month’s GOP primary, Georgia voters overwhelmingly backed Gov. Brian Kemp, who dismissed Trump’s lies about widespread fraud during the 2020 election.

Trump has been trying to shrug off his initial losses, but it’s unclear whether Noem can advance that easily. Some incumbents who have survived their efforts to defeat them wonder why a governor they support and generally agree with went to so much to try to oust them.

“There was a belief system that the party was a family – you don’t fight other members,” said State Senator Al Novstrup, a longtime lawmaker who consistently scores high on conservative organizations’ scorecards. “Obviously that concept has broken dramatically in this elementary school.”

Noem went into the primary with a somewhat strained relationship with Republican lawmakers. The results of the vote could only exacerbate the tension. Those weak ties to the Legislature could raise further questions about her ability to bid competitively for the Republican presidential nomination as multiple contendersincluding Trump, are taking steps to announce campaigns later this year.

She spent most of her first term crafting a vision of South Dakota as an example of conservative politics, and tapped into activist zeal in a game widely considered part of the White House conversation. But she also softened her proposals with deference to state government operations and the business community.

This has fueled conflict with some House Republicans in the Legislature over proposals for transgender children, exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements and tax cuts. Despite her party holding 90% of the parliamentary seats, Noem’s agenda that year failed. House lawmakers paralyzed her proposals, often brushing aside her input.

They even openly criticized her.

A third of the Republican faction in the House of Representatives voted in favor of an unsuccessful attempt at public scolding Noem for taking on a hands-on role with a government agency while they reviewed her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser’s license.

Among them was Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, who has mostly supported the governor but said he voted based on his conscience. He had also previously parsed with Noem: his proposal in 2020 to ban puberty blockers and gender confirmation procedures for transgender children under the age of 16 was rejected in the Senate after Noem expressed reservations about the proposal.

As the April primary rolled around, the governor publicly criticized Deutsch and backed a candidate she could trust — her childhood babysitter, Stephanie Sauder.

But Noem’s wishes in the primary race were only partially met in the contest, which saw two House candidates emerge from a field of four Republicans. Sauder received the most votes, but Deutsch beat the other two candidates for the Republican nomination.

Noem got a goodbye from one of their most vocal Republican critics, House Speaker Spencer Gosch, when he challenged a state senator for the GOP nomination for that chamber. She also gained several other allies in the legislature, including a former chief of staff.

Her decision to run in the primary did not go unnoticed by grassroots groups fueling the current split in the state GOP. Noem received backlash from conservative media after a newspaper reported that she was working with state senator Lee Schoenbeck, the president pro tempore, to rid the statehouse of certain conservatives.

Sensing trouble, Noem sought to minimize the damage and maintain her ties with the Conservatives. The effort included a private meeting at a church in Sioux Falls in mid-May with a group called the Patriot Ripple Effect.

Noem seemed eager to convince the dozens of people who filled a church conference room that she was like-minded. She pointed to her decision during the COVID-19 pandemic to waive nationwide lockdowns and mask requirements, despite many criticisms and objections. She also clapped back at Republican lawmakers, who were pushing for sweeping exemptions from vaccines and advocating a hands-off approach to government that extends to both companies and individuals.

“They blew me up and said I wasn’t conservative because I wouldn’t come in and tell Sanford (the state’s largest hospital system) and big corporations they couldn’t require vaccines for their employees,” she said. “My response to them was, ‘They’re telling me as a government to tell them as a private company what to do.'”

Her claims drew some applause. But her questions mostly challenged Noem and poked at her record throughout the 45-minute meeting. They wanted to know why she would reliably target conservative lawmakers?

“My babysitter is running for office. I kinda like her,” she replied.

The group continued to press the issue, with a member pointing to Noem’s testimony backing a challenger to state senator Novstrup. Noem’s response suggested that her support for Rachel Dix stemmed from a personal connection rather than political ideology: “She’s a friend of mine and has been for years.”

As the first results began to crystallize, it became clear that internal party conflict is not going away.

Rep. Tom Pischke, who belongs to the conservative wing of the party and is beating Noem’s election for a Senate seat, said he got a boost after being targeted by Noem’s allies. A letter was even circulated among voters noting that Noem’s preferred candidate, Lisa Rave, was married to the chief lobbyist for the state’s hospital systems – a favorite target of certain Conservatives during the pandemic.

“That was the nail in the coffin for her,” says Pischke about the effect of the letter on his rival.

He added that the fallout from the race may even have extended to the governor’s standing among ardent conservatives: “It actually did damage to governor Noem a little bit,” he said.


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