Kristi Noem doesn’t lack political skill or courage. She’s proven that time and again in the last decade.
South Dakota’s most successful female politician ever — and it’s not really close — was confident from the time she entered her first statewide race in 2010. I met her shortly after she won the Republican congressional primary, defeating better-known candidates such as Chris Nelson, then the secretary of state, now a member of the Public Utilities Commission, and Blake Curd, then a state representative, now a state senator.
Noem was in her second term as a state representative from Hamlin County when she jumped into the congressional race. After winning the GOP nomination, she was prepared to take on Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who at the time was the state’s leading female politician.
In an interview that summer, Noem said she was confident of victory, despite the fact that Herseth Sandlin had won her last two races in landslides, enjoyed edges in name recognition and money and was being hailed as a future senator, governor, maybe even president.
“I’m going to win,” Noem said, which became our headline.
Indeed she did, defeating Herseth Sandlin in an intense, fascinating match-up. The incumbent Democrat had several edges, including a name that resonated with South Dakotans who had elected her grandfather, grandmother and father to office, but Noem had the biggest advantage — she was a Republican.
She also proved to be a skilled campaigner. I covered Noem that campaign and again in 2012 and watched how the former South Dakota Snow Queen worked a room, smiling and posing for photos. She chatted easily with people, and not all candidates have that desire or ability.
“She has more raw talent than any candidate I’ve ever seen in South Dakota,” supporter Teddy Hustead said when she was a freshman congresswoman. “I knew the more people that I can get Kristi Noem in front of the more votes we’re gonna get.”
Noem impressed Hustead, the owner of Wall Drug, when she was in the Legislature and he became her finance chair and a key West River supporter. She knows what friends to make.
Once elected to Congress, there was no stopping Noem, who easily won three more terms. She had become a force in state politics, despite a thin resume of accomplishments. Name one thing she did in Congress. Go ahead, one.
But politics is different that government, and Noem is a masterful politician. Democrat Billie Sutton learned that after polls showed the two neck-and-neck in the governor’s race last fall. In their first televised debate, Noem was the aggressor from the start, pressing the state senator on his political beliefs and past comments.
She won the debate and, in a lot of views, the election, that night.
Sure, she had help, as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence came to South Dakota to raise money and draw attention for her. But credit Noem for the win, and add Sutton to the list of promising candidates who found her a powerful foe.
Now, as governor, Noem will have her skills as an administrator tested. She is no longer one of 435 in Congress, free to make speeches, raise money and miss votes, which she did with alarming frequency in her final months as South Dakota’s lone member of Congress.
She must lead. She has to prove to voters, and to veterans in Pierre, that she has the ability and the vision to lead the state. Noem’s inaugural State of the State address, which focused on the budget, the meth plague and other major issues, drew praise from both Republicans and Democrats.
She may once again show that anyone who underestimates her has made a mistake. So far, Kristi Noem has always been a winner, and odds are, she will have two successful terms as governor. The last governor to lose in a bid for re-election was Frank Farrar in 1970, and Noem will be a formidable candidate again in 2022.
A long list of former opponents can attest to that.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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