PIERRE, S.D. – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's election-year fight with fellow Republicans in the Legislature has spurred criticism she is neglecting her job to angle for the White House, but the resistance could actually be helping her national brand rather than tarnishing it.
The first-term governor in recent weeks jetted to Florida to speak at a major gathering of conservative activists, announced on Fox News the release of an autobiography and blasted President Joe Biden's energy policy as Russia invaded Ukraine.
Back home, the politician trying to corner the label as the nation's most conservative governor has faced considerable defiance from members of her own party. They have derailed key parts of her 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 squabbles aren't a liability and may even be an asset for a politician trying to curry favor with the former president and the voters who support him.
“It helps her if they don’t pass (her agenda) more so than if they did,” Buchanan said. “Trump has primed Republican leaders to think about the unfaithful within their own ranks."
In a recent Statehouse setback for Noem, Republicans rejected her plan to keep K-12 classrooms free of "critical race theory” — an academic concept that has morphed into a political rallying cry on the right. They later passed a bill applying to universities, but not before reining in its scope.
Noem began this session by laying out an agenda that amounted to a wish list for social conservatives. But she has had to navigate a Legislature divided between conservatives pushing the state to take hard-line stands on social issues and a GOP establishment more likely to focus on bread and butter issues. Lawmakers rejected roughly half the proposals the governor highlighted in her State of the State speech at the start of the session.
Noem has long displayed a willingness to spar with the Legislature, but acrimony boiled over this winter. Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch accused the governor of chasing headlines and TV appearances rather than doing the foundational work to build legislative support for her proposals at home.
Noem has shown a knack for the political theatrics invaluable in Trump's Republican Party and last month won the former president's endorsement for her reelection campaign. Her social media feeds are filled with images of her riding a motorcycle at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, on horseback carrying an American flag, showing off a flamethrower and hunting pheasants.
But her move onto the list of Republican White House aspirants suffered a major stumble last year when she backed away from a pledge to sign a bill that would have banned transgender girls and college-age women from competing in school sports that match their gender identity.
In an effort to placate angry conservatives, Noem pushed a transgender athlete ban through the Legislature this year, promoting her proposal with a barrage of TV ads on Fox News that claimed she “never backed down” on the issue.
With that element of the national party, at least, it appears to have worked.
“I do think this has really repaired her image," said Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project. “It’s definitely made me much more supportive of her to see her sign this.”
But some people in both parties see that bill, and others, as aimed largely at Noem's national ambitions.
“You have a governor who is trying to get her name out and sadly that’s what a lot of these bills are — it’s to be used for election material, not to affect any real policy change,” said Democratic state Sen. Troy Heinert. “It looks to me like we’re trying to out-crazy Texas and Florida.”
Noem has adopted some of Trump’s bombast, name-calling fellow Republicans on Twitter when they do something she doesn't like. But it's an approach that has backfired at times in the small government town of Pierre, where lawmakers pride themselves on decorum and often refer to one another as “friend” or “good representative” during debates.
She griped that two Republican lawmakers were acting like “wolves in sheep's clothing” when they floated a ban on vaccine mandates last year. As talks with fellow Republicans over the state budget broke down this week, she took to YouTube to accuse them of “corruption” for holding a closed-door budget briefing with the state's attorney general.
“I'm screwed either way, no matter what I say,” Noem said of her particularly tense relationship with Gosch, who has accused her of meddling in an impeachment investigation of the attorney general in a fatal traffic crash. “It’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, a political science professor at Northern State University. "There is a rump portion of the Republican Party that is just not on board with Kristi Noem.”
Even lawmakers who were once allies of the governor said they have often been left on the outside after daring to defy her.
The “breakdown is just not staying in touch with people, it’s not communicating," said Republican Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who was appointed to the Legislature by Noem but became an outspoken critic after Noem effectively killed the trans athlete bill.
The drama at home may not matter if Noem pursues higher office. A decade ago, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann — known more for championing far-right social issues than for lawmaking — rode her polarizing image to an early splash in the GOP race for president in 2012 before fizzling out.
For now, Noem says she's focused on winning reelection later this year. She won her first term in 2018 by just 3 points over a Democratic state lawmaker, Billie Sutton, who had a compelling personal story as a former professional rodeo cowboy who had overcome paralysis to forge a second career in politics.
The race is likely to be far different this year. Noem has 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 her backers are already looking beyond November — and beyond South Dakota.
“There will be plenty of people raising her flag, whether it is to be President Trump’s running mate, should he decide to engage, or as a bona fide contender for the Republican nomination herself," said Ken Blackwell, co-chairman of the pro-Trump America First Policy Institute.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.