The Republican Knives Are Out for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
South Dakota Republicans haven’t lost a statewide election since 2008. They have slapped Democrats around in just about every campaign, even running unopposed for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010 and U.S. House seat in 2020.
Now it seems like they’re so desperate for a good fight that they’ve picked several among themselves.
Gov. Kristi Noem, who has been riding high in polls in her state, has never lost an election. She served four terms in Congress before being elected governor in 2018. The South Dakota legislature has supermajorities in both chambers, with Republicans holding 94 of 105 seats. No Democrat holds statewide office.
But Noem has suddenly found plenty of opponents with whom to wage bitter political battles: fellow Republicans.
Conversations with experts and political insiders from both parties suggest that while it’s far too early to suggest she’s in danger of losing her re-election bid this fall, Noem may emerge bloodied, with any national ambitions in some jeopardy.
University of South Dakota political science professor Michael Card told The Daily Beast that Noem has raised hackles in part by the very nature of how she performs duties essential to her job. Specifically, he pointed to her repeatedly referring to South Dakota issues with terms like “my bill” and “my budget” in a state with old-school lawmakers who like to maintain their fiefdoms.
When one of her staff members referred to the “governor’s budget” this week, Card noted, a normally mild-mannered lawmaker “snapped” and said it was the legislature’s budget, not her own.
“I think that’s symptomatic of a lot of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s her brand, not the state.”
A spokesperson for Noem declined to comment for this story.
State political insiders suggest Noem is basically alone in Pierre, and that even if she remains beloved by large swaths of the Republican base, her image has taken a serious dent among the very people she needs to get things done.
“She doesn’t have any friends,” a longtime Republican insider and observer of South Dakota politics told The Daily Beast.
Perhaps most remarkably, Noem is sparring with the current GOP speaker of the state legislature, Rep. Spencer Gosch.
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Last Wednesday, Noem asked for a “heartbeat bill”—a far-right project that purports to ban abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected and has notoriously become law in states like Texas—to be introduced. Lawmakers declined, saying they wanted to see the outcome of pending litigation before federal courts.
Noem called the move “unprecedented” and a betrayal of the pro-life movement. But Gosch argued the package presented by the governor wasn’t a bill in final form, referring to it as “notes,” even as Noem insisted it was a bill ready for introduction onto the House floor.
On Thursday, Noem told reporters that she and Gosch had a personality conflict and she wasn’t sure how to resolve it.
“I’m screwed either way, no matter what I say,” Noem said. “He’s looking for a reason to blame me for everything and it’s weird because we agree on probably 90 percent of policy issues. There’s something, some reason this guy doesn’t like me and it seems like a personal agenda, but I don’t know what it is.”
In a Thursday press conference, she said she gets along with other legislative leaders but has a “strained” relationship with the speaker.
In his own statement Thursday, Gosch referred to Noem’s congressional career and her reputation as a fierce political fighter. “As for the personal attacks, D.C. politics are not welcome here,” he said. “South Dakotans deserve better from their elected officials, and that’s what they can expect from their legislature as we continue the crucial work of ending abortion in America.”
Policy fights aside, Noem is also under pressure thanks to a pair of investigations into her past conduct—some of which have been set off by members of her own party.
An ongoing Government Accountability Board investigation requested by GOP Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has two prongs.
One is Noem’s use of state airplanes for multiple trips out of state to appear at conservative political gatherings. For months, the governor has claimed she needed to keep details of her travels private for security reasons. Now the Republican-dominated legislature is interested in digging into those trips.
Noem also has taken heat for her involvement in her daughter Kassidy Peter’s efforts to obtain a real estate appraiser license from the state. That led to a meeting between the governor, the state employee who oversaw the process, that employee’s boss, and other officials—as well as Noem’s daughter—as the Associated Press reported.
Sherry Bren—the employee who ran the state agency in charge of certifying licenses—claimed she was told to retire later that year. She subsequently filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the state, but dropped it after receiving a $200,000 settlement.
Card argued the entire process just “fails the smell test.” And he’s far from alone in suggesting the governor’s tactics are catching up with her.
Northern State University political science professor Jon D. Schaff told The Daily Beast that, based on what he is told by people in Pierre, Noem has brought a lot of this on herself.
“To use a basketball term, it seems from the beginning Kristi Noem has had wide elbows. She’s been aggressively pushing her agenda and is willing to ‘throw elbows’ to get it done,” Schaff said. “Perhaps she is a bit indiscriminate in who she’s elbowing, including members of her own ‘team.’”
The tension in Pierre has pulled back the curtain on a broader dynamic of Noem’s relationship with state officials. She keeps odd hours, does a lot of work in her official residence, and doesn’t invest much time or effort in getting to know legislators, multiple sources told The Daily Beast.
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, argued the feuding and bickering among Republicans has served to expose Noem’s basic weakness.
"She’s not very good at being governor,” Nesiba, the lawmaker who asked Attorney General Ravnsborg to investigate Noem’s use of state airplanes last year, told The Daily Beast.
The perception that her ambitions go well beyond the confines of the state may also be hurting Noem among key players in both parties. That tension is a rite of passage for any politician with national aspirations, but insiders say Noem is having a rough go of it so far.
The governor has raised eyebrows by touring the country, appearing at conservative gatherings and being interviewed on national TV shows, according to the Republican insider. It’s seen as a way for her to boost her national profile in hopes of landing on the Republican ticket in 2024 or down the road.
At the same time, the South Dakota GOP veteran said, she doesn’t invite legislators over to her Pierre house for steaks, drinks, and political gabfests. It’s a change in how previous governors operated, the insider argued.
Lawmakers hungry for personal attention aside, Noem’s beef with Attorney General Ravnsborg somehow keeps getting worse.
Ravnsborg is himself caught up in an impeachment process because he killed a man with his car in 2020. If he is removed from office, Noem would name his replacement. That’s one reason the legislature has been slow to act on impeachment, not wanting to give Noem more power, the Republican insider suggested.
But Noem has aggressively called for Ravnsborg to resign since his role in ending another man’s life became clear, and also has urged the legislature to move forward on impeachment.
The push to remove him took on a new tenor in recent days when Gosch and other legislators said they were deluged with scores of phone calls urging them to impeach. The calls were traced to Grand Solutions, Inc., in Warren, Ohio, a telemarketing company.
A recording from one of the Grand Solution callers to a South Dakotan also included an odd discussion, apparently in the Ohio firm’s boiler room, during a call that mentioned Ravnsborg.
“I don’t know. I was on the phone. I just gave him an update and the governor called. They’re going to call me back,” the caller was heard saying. “The governor is actually involved in this so that is why it is more specific. But it is nice because this person is running for president, I don’t know if they’re running for Democrat or Republican …”
It is not clear that the “governor” referred to on the call was Noem. Jonathan Petrea, a spokesperson for Angel Kane, who is listed as having incorporated the telemarketing firm, told Dakota News Now that no politician or political organization was behind the calls. He declined to say who paid for them when contacted by The Daily Beast.
“I don’t have anything more to add,” he said. A phone number for Grand Solutions had been disconnected.
Gosch, in a statement issued Jan. 27, said the calls were highly suspicious.
“It is clear to me that whoever is behind this movement is trying to impede, influence, or taint the ongoing investigation of this committee," he said. "We are looking into who is behind this.”
Noem has insisted she had no involvement with the calls, and has no idea who is behind them.
“I don’t, other than the speaker is the one who told me about them and made me aware,” she said on Jan. 27.
Noem campaign manager Joe Desilets has likewise said neither the governor nor her campaign were linked to these calls.
“There is no wiggle room, no doubt, [that neither] the campaign nor the governor directed this, wanted this, authorized it, paid for it, anything at all,” Desilets told Dakota News Now.
A state House special investigative committee considering impeachment proceedings against Ravnsborg has announced plans to investigate the calls. The head of that committee? Speaker Gosch.
Still, Noem remains a popular figure among the general public in the state. A poll conducted last fall showed her with a solid base of support, with 61.2 percent approval.
South Dakota State University political science associate professor David L. Wiltse said Noem’s “feud” problem was not unique to South Dakota politics. He noted that polling he has done shows deepening partisan divides in the state, with the majority of Republicans strongly supporting Noem.
So even as her fellow political elites may be turning on her, Wiltse advised critics to go slow on preparing her political obituary. “It is clear that she is in good standing, and I doubt her re-election is in jeopardy,” he said.
Card, who served in state government under four-term Republican Gov. Bill Janklow, said he, too, believes Noem remains a favorite to win a second term.
But, he argued, that is no longer a “slam dunk.”
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