SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Ahead of a potential presidential bid, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem handily won the Republican nomination last week for a second term. Many of the candidates she hoped to elect to the Statehouse, however, did not have such a good night.
She had hoped to replace contrarians with personal allies in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has consistently defied she wishes, so the governor rallied behind roughly a dozen candidates who challenged incumbents. Two-thirds of Noem’s favorites lost.
The setback was a reminder that while endorsements often draw attention and financial resources, they do not always translate into support from voters. It's a lesson that Donald Trump, Noem's ally, is learning as he falls short, notably in Georgia, in trying to punish Republicans who have crossed him. In the GOP primary last month, Georgia voters overwhelmingly backed Gov. Brian Kemp, who had rebuffed Trump's lies about widespread fraud during the 2020 election.
Trump has tried to shake off his initial losses, but it is unclear whether Noem will be able to move forward so easily. Some incumbents who survived her efforts to defeat them are left wondering why a governor they support and generally agree with went to such lengths to try to oust them.
"There was a belief system that the party was a family -- you do not campaign against other members,” said state Sen. Al Novstrup, a longtime lawmaker who perennially scores high on conservative organizations’ scorecards. “Obviously, that concept has broken dramatically in this primary.”
Noem entered the primary election with a somewhat strained relationship with Republican lawmakers. The results from the vote could only deepen the tension. Those tenuous bonds with the Legislature could raise further questions about her ability to make a competitive bid for the Republican presidential nomination as multiple contenders, including Trump, take steps to announce campaigns later this year.
She spent most of her first term crafting a vision of South Dakota as an exemplar of conservative policy, tapping into activist fervor in what was widely seen as a play to be part of the White House conversation. But she also tempered her proposals with consideration for state government operations and the business community.
That fueled conflict with some House Republicans in the Legislature over proposals aimed at transgender children, exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements and tax cuts. Even though her party held 90% of the legislative seats, Noem’s agenda foundered this year. House lawmakers hamstrung her proposals and often brushed aside her input.
They even openly criticized her.
One-third of the House Republican caucus voted for an unsuccessful effort to publicly scold Noem for taking a hands-on role in a state agency while it was evaluating her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.
Among them was Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, who has mostly been supportive of the governor but said he makes votes based on his conscience. He had also sparred with Noem before: His proposal in 2020 to bar puberty blockers and gender confirmation procedures to transgender children under 16 was rejected in the Senate after Noem expressed reservations about the proposal.
As primary campaigns ramped up in April, the governor publicly criticized Deutsch and put her support with a candidate she could trust — her childhood babysitter, Stephanie Sauder.
But Noem’s wishes in the primary race were only partially fulfilled in the contest where two House candidates advanced from a field of four Republicans. Sauder received the most votes but Deutsch beat out the two other candidates for the Republican nomination.
Noem was able to see off one of her loudest Republican critics, House Speaker Spencer Gosch, as he challenged a state senator for the GOP nomination to that chamber. She also gained several other allies in the Legislature, including a former chief of staff.
Her decision to wade into the primaries did not go unnoticed by the grassroots groups animating the current divide in the state GOP. Noem received blowback from conservative media after a newspaper report that she was working with state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the president pro tempore, to rid the Statehouse of certain conservatives.
Sensing trouble ahead, Noem tried to minimize damage and maintain her ties with conservatives. The effort included a private meeting in mid-May at a church in Sioux Falls with a group called Patriot Ripple Effect.
Noem seemed eager to convince the dozens of people who filled a conference room at the church that she was like-minded. She pointed to her decision during the COVID-19 pandemic to forgo statewide lockdowns and mask mandates despite plenty of criticism and objections. She also clapped back at Republican lawmakers who pushed sweeping vaccine exemptions, espousing a hands-off approach to government that extends to businesses as much as individuals.
“They were blowing me up saying I wasn’t conservative because I would not come in and tell Sanford (the state’s largest hospital system) and tell big businesses that they couldn’t require vaccines for their employees,” she said. “My answer for them was, ‘You’re telling me as the government to tell them as a private business what to do.’”
Her assertions drew some applause. But their questions mostly challenged Noem, picking at her record throughout the 45-minute meeting. They wanted to know why she would target reliably conservative lawmakers?
“My babysitter’s running for office. I kind of like her,” she responded.
The group continued to press the question, with one member pointing to Noem’s statement backing a challenger to Novstrup, the state senator. Noem’s answer suggested her support for Rachel Dix was based more on personal connection than political ideology: “She’s a friend of mine and has been for years.”
As the primary results crystallized, it became clear the internal party conflict is not going away.
Rep. Tom Pischke, who is from the party's hard-line conservative wing and easily beat Noem's pick for a state Senate seat, said he got a boost after being targeted by Noem's allies. A letter was even circulated among voters pointing out 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,” Pischke said of the letter's effect on his rival.
He added that the fallout from the race may have even spread to the governor's standing among ardent conservatives: "It actually hurt Gov. Noem a little bit," he said.
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