SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who has raised her national exposure through a hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions, won the Republican primary on Tuesday against a former legislative leader who accused her of using the office to make an offer for the White House in 2024.
All three incumbent Republicans who ran for re-election to statewide office — Naem, U.S. Senator John Thune and U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson — stopped primary challengers running to their right. Primary voters also rejected a constitutional amendment proposal that would have made it more difficult to pass citizen-initiated voting measures that raise taxes or spend significant public funds.
The Governor’s first-term win against Steve Haugaard, former Speaker of the South Dakota House, gives her an overwhelming advantage as she runs for another term in November against Democratic State Representative Jamie Smith, who had no primary challenger.
In her speech at an election night party, Noem didn’t even mention the name of her Democratic governor challenger. Instead, she told the crowd, “We’ll have a chance to hold elections in November and make sure we push back Joe Biden’s America.”
She then led them in booing and jeering at the president’s policies while comparing Biden to former President Donald Trump, whose attention she has drawn.
“Today I am on the defensive,” she said. “Every time I turn around, I’m fighting Joe Biden and the damage he’s doing to the state of South Dakota.”
Noem has used this election fundraising cycle to raise a record amount for a South Dakota governor candidate — raising more than $15 million from a series of fundraisers across the country.
“She was one of the few governors who stood firm by not using the pandemic to increase government interference in our lives,” said Kerry Larson, a Republican voter from Sioux Falls. “It says a lot about her and how she will govern under pressure.”
But Noem also sometimes struggles to manage Statehouse politics, publicly clashing with Republican lawmakers she disagrees with.
Haugaard had tried to turn the tables in Noem’s 2018 campaign pledge to increase government transparency. He has pointed to ethical complaints she faces for using state jets to attend political events and played a hands-on role with a state agency as it evaluated her daughter’s application for a real estate appraisal permit.
Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the room, also won his primary against two challengers who joined the race after Thune sparked Trump’s ire. Trump speculated that the senator’s career was “over” after he made public statements denouncing the former president’s lies about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
None of the challengers were well funded or known in the state, and in a sign that Thune was positioned for the win, Trump stayed away from South Dakota.
Thune has long been a fixture as the senior statesman of the state’s GOP, and if he wins reelection to a fourth term, he’s likely a good choice to succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader. He will face Democrat Brian Bengs, an Air Force veteran and college professor, in the November general election.
The senator alluded to his fame in Washington in a statement celebrating the primary victory, saying he would “continue to put South Dakota’s interests on the national agenda” and label Biden’s agenda as a “radical, left-wing crusade.”
Thune’s status in Washington played a role in the vote of Republican Sandra Pay, who said it would be “crazy” to vote anyone out of Thune’s leadership position in the Senate.
“He has power,” she said.
Republican Johnson defeated state legislator Taffy Howard in the Republican primaries for the only seat in the state House. The $300,000 campaign that Howard raised dwarfed Johnson’s $1.8 million, but a number of national political action committees spent money on the race when it started to look competitive.
“It won’t be cheating and assault in New Jersey that carries the day,” Johnson said, referring to a political action committee called Drain The Swamp that spent $500,000 against Johnson. “It will be the truth and hard work in South Dakota.”
The congressman has taken a considered approach to most issues and has touted his work to a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Problem Solvers Caucus. Howard has tried to challenge him from the right by creating a primary race that showed some momentum behind the more extreme wing of the Republican Party in South Dakota.
That conflict within the party has been fought over a series of legislative primary races where Republicans have launched attack ads against each other. Established Republicans are trying to wipe out a group of contrarian lawmakers who have pushed the legislature further to the right.
However, Republican voter Kim McKoy said on Tuesday she was thinking of one thing when she cast her vote: “Economics, economics, economics.”
She mostly voted against the incumbents.
“I listen to these people talk and I’m like, ‘Do you care that people are having a hard time?’ I just don’t think they do,” she said. “I think they care about their goals and they’ve gone crazy.”
Primary voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution proposed by Republican lawmakers that would have imposed a 60% voting threshold on voting measures to raise taxes or spend more than $10 million within five years of coming into effect.
Democrat Joshua Matzner said he voted against the proposal because it would erode citizens’ power to change laws through the vote.
“We would rather be able to actually make a decision in our government,” he said.