By STEPHEN GROVES and JONATHAN J. COOPER, Associated Press
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — They had waited in a line around the block in the desert heat, and now the excitement was palpable as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem took the stage in a convention hall in suburban Phoenix. “She is our governor!” someone shouted.
Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona who organized the event last week, stood next to 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 possible candidate for the White House in 2024.
“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 at home: winning a second term in November.
Many expected him to pull off victory in a Republican-dominated state against an inexperienced Democratic opponent statewide. But his frequent trips out of state, as well as recent ethics stumbles, have given Democrats license to dream of an upset, or at least make the race close enough to cast doubt on Noem’s viability in a future race. 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 huge fundraising advantage. Naomi funds. Republicans have nearly doubled Democrats on the voter rolls and Smith’s greatest political experience was leading House Democrats, a beleaguered gang that has been whittled down to eight members.
But Smith has made a shrewd run in trying to turn Noem’s ambition against him, Samuelson said.
“Everyone I talk to, both Republicans and Democrats, believes that he has closed the gap with her,” she said.
Noem did not grant an interview request for this story. His 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’s going to run to the finish line,” he said.
His 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 helping other Republicans helps advance the conservative cause. But he also paid to boost his campaign ads on Facebook in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, key early presidential primary states, and gave several interviews in which he was excited about running for the White House.
The governor cruised through the spring and summer, published an autobiography, created a national fundraising network that amassed nearly $12 million, and publicly reconnected with Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. Noem had cut ties last year with Lewandowski after a donor accused him of making unwelcome sexual advances at a fundraiser attended by Noem and Lewandowski.
Smith, with $900,000 raised for his campaign, has crisscrossed the state in his truck, visiting every county in his long shot challenge. Overview of Noem’s out-of-state travel has been a recurring theme of his campaign.
“We need a leader who is focused on the state of South Dakota, who works for the people and who really 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, casts himself as a moderate and has run a mostly upbeat campaign so far. During her only discussion with Noem, he only briefly mentioned the ethics complaints that have dogged her in recent months, including her involvement with a state agency in one of her daughters’ application for a driver’s license. real estate appraiser. The state ethics board, in a matter first reported by the AP, found evidence of misconduct but has not disclosed its action against her.
Michael Card, a former political strategist and professor at the University of South Dakota, said Noem has made himself vulnerable on those issues, while upsetting many teachers and school administrators by appointing a conservative university in Michigan to help remake standards. state social studies. Noem is also facing questions about whether she can win over women, especially after abortion emerged as a key issue in the election year.
Noem’s stance on abortion, with no exceptions for rape and incest, may be out of step with South Dakotans, who voted in 2006 and 2008 against legislative attempts to outlaw the procedure altogether.
“There are some lingering questions about whether it’s ready for prime time,” Card said.
If nothing else, Smith seems to have Noem’s attention.
He recently came out with an ad linking Smith to President Joe Biden, who won 36% of South Dakota’s vote in 2020. The governor seized on an issue Smith had lobbied for years by promising to repeal a state tax on the groceries. He, too, returned to campaigning quickly after announcing back surgery that he initially said could take several months to fully recover, with appearances in his traditional stronghold of Rapid City as well as a visit to Arizona.
Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, played down the idea that a narrow win by Noem would hurt her going forward. More important, Stewart said, is whether Noem is showing leadership on issues like the economy, crime, parental rights and education that are important to broad constituencies of voters.
The repeal of the grocery tax was just one of those moves, along with Noem’s promise to expand paternity leave opportunities.
But Casey Murschel, 71, said he plans to vote for Smith. Murschel, a former GOP state representative from the Sioux Falls area, said riots at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, led her to leave the party and identify as an independent. She said she is confident Smith will focus on governing the state and advocating for abortion rights.
“Kristi has gone to Hollywood,” he said. “He basically has turned his back on the people of South Dakota. We are like props to her.”
Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
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