SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem got some high-value exposure to Republican voters across the country last week during her appearance at the Republican National Convention – and during Fox News commercial breaks.
At the governor's request, the South Dakota Department of Tourism aired a Fox News ad narrated by Noem that premiered alongside her Wednesday speech at the RNC. The 30-second spot, which cost taxpayers $819,000, advertises the state as a place open for visitors despite the pandemic. That theme was in line with Noem’s convention speech, which centered on the American ideals of “equality, freedom, and opportunity.”
The ad opens with a montage of tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial, then crescendos with the governor introducing herself.
“Celebrate what makes America great,” she says. “And experience the great places and great faces of South Dakota.”
Noem has courted a national following among conservatives and saw her profile rise as she took a hands-off approach to the pandemic, avoiding statewide lockdowns and business closures. The state spent $1.5 million for a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore during an Independence Day-themed event attend by President Donald Trump.
Noem also spent $130,000 to build a studio in the basement of the Capitol, which she has used frequently for Fox News appearances.
But Darrell Solberg, a former Democratic legislator who has been an advocate for government accountability, called the ad an “unethical” use of taxpayer money that “benefits Noem’s personal profile.”
“I think she ought to pay more attention to what is going on in the state than raising her profile on Fox News,” he said.
Coronavirus cases have surged in South Dakota. The state recorded the nation's third-highest number of cases per capita over the last two weeks. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, which Noem has said drives her coronavirus strategy, has seen a slight increase.
The ad, which will run for two weeks, is a massive purchase for a state that usually spends roughly $4.8 million in tourism promotion in an entire year. But it drew praise from those who argued Noem's national exposure is a boon for the state.
“It was a brilliant idea in my opinion,” said Corey Lewandowski, who is a senior advisor to Trump’s reelection campaign and also advises Noem.
Ian Fury, a spokesman for the governor, said the ad was designed to appeal to people who “appreciate our approach to freedom and personal responsibility.”
He pointed to an uptick in tax revenues from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally over previous years as evidence that the state’s tourism industry is benefiting from Noem’s approach. The rally has also been linked to coronavirus infections among 290 people spread across 12 states. Minnesota health officials reported Wednesday that a man who attended the rally died after contracting COVID-19.
Fox News averaged 7.1 million viewers during the third night of the convention when Noem spoke, making it the most-watched network. The ad is expected to get more than 85 million views during its Fox News run, according to the Department of Tourism.
The state’s travel website has seen a boost in traffic since the ad ran, with web sessions up by 148% compared to last year.
But the website is not the only entity to receive a rush of web traffic. Google searches for “Kristi Noem” peaked on Thursday, the day after her convention speech. Meanwhile, the number of Google searches for such terms as “South Dakota tourism” and “visit South Dakota” remained stagnant.
Don Frankenfeld, a former Republican legislator who has been a part of campaigns for greater government accountability, said there is no doubt Noem benefits personally from the ad. Still, he called it “appropriate” for her as governor to appear in an ad pitching the state's tourist offerings.
“Every politician enjoys attention, and Gov. Noem is clearly no exception,” he said.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.