Four weeks to decision day in South Dakota’s governor’s race

October 10, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — They had waited in the desert heat in a line that wrapped around the block and now the excitement was palpable when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem took the stage in a suburban Phoenix convention hall. “She’s our governor!” someone yelled.

Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor in Arizona who hosted the event this past week, stood beside Noem and joined in the praise. She called Noem an “inspiration” who stood up for families against intrusive government mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The warm reception was familiar to Noem, who has made such appearances part of building her national profile as a potential 2024 White House contender.

“I wish I could vote for a woman like that,” Lake said. “But I don’t live in South Dakota.”

If Noem has ambitions beyond her state, she must first take care of political business back home: winning a second term in November.

Many expected her to cruise to victory in a Republican-dominated state against a Democratic opponent without statewide experience. But her frequent out-of-state travels, as well as recent ethics stumbles, have given Democrats license to dream of an upset — or at least making the race close enough to raise questions about Noem’s viability on a bigger stage.

Drey Samuelson, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said few people gave Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith much of a chance when he announced his campaign for governor, given Smith’s lack of name recognition and Noem’s massive fundraising advantage. Republicans have almost doubled Democrats on voter rolls and Smith’s highest political experience was leading House Democrats — a beleaguered band that has dwindled to eight members.

But Smith has run a shrewd race by seeking to turn Noem’s ambition against her, Samuelson said.

“Everyone I talk to, both Republicans and Democrats, believes that he has closed the gap on her,” he said.

Noem did not grant an interview request for this story. Her campaign spokesman, Ian Fury, said Noem “has never taken a single election for granted.”

“She works hard for her constituents, she works hard on the campaign trail and she is going to run through the finish line,” he said.

Her recent stop in Arizona, which was also the site of a family wedding, was just one appearance in more than a dozen states this campaign cycle.

Noem’s campaign has argued that lending a hand to fellow Republicans helps advance the conservative cause. But she has also paid to boost her campaign ads on Facebook in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire — important early presidential primary states — and granted several interviews where she warmed to the idea of running for the White House.

The governor sailed through spring and summer, releasing an autobiography, creating a nationwide fundraising network that amassed nearly $12 million and publicly reconnecting with Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. Noem had severed ties last year with Lewandowski after he was accused by a donor of making unwanted sexual advances at a fundraiser that Noem and Lewandowski both attended.

Smith, with $900,000 raised for his campaign, has gone around the state in his pickup, visiting every county in his long shot challenge. Panning Noem’s out-of-state trips has been a recurring theme of his campaign.

“We need a leader that’s focused on the state of South Dakota, that’s working for the people and that truly cares about what’s best for the state,” Smith told The Associated Press.

Smith, a real estate agent who has also worked as a teacher and coach, has cast himself as a moderate and so far has run a mostly upbeat campaign. During his lone debate with Noem, he only briefly mentioned ethics complaints that have dogged her in recent months, including her intervention with a state agency in the application by one of her daughters for a real estate appraiser’s license. The state ethics board, on a matter first reported by the AP, found evidence of misconduct but has not revealed its action against her.