With attention comes controversy. This past week, Noem has had to defend herself from questions of nepotism and a thinly sourced affair allegation. Here’s more about her and why she’s getting so much attention right now.
Her political background
Noem is South Dakota’s first female governor, first elected in 2018 and up for reelection next year. Before that, she served as a member of Congress for nearly a decade.
She has grown her profile and popularity in South Dakota, a state that voted for Trump in 2020 by 26 percentage points, by modeling Trumpian politics, most notably by openly flouting public health recommendations on the coronavirus. A lot of her approach to politics emulates Trump, from her frequent social media and video postings to her regular Fox News appearances and her penchant for jumping into controversy on social issues. And as a telegenic woman, she stands out in a sea of White men in South Dakota and Republican politics.
Her recent controversies
There have been two big ones in the last couple of weeks.
Did Noem inappropriately step in to get her daughter a job? The state’s Republican attorney general (facing his own problems) and some Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are looking into this. The Associated Press recently reported that Noem held a meeting with an obscure government official who was moving to deny her daughter a real estate appraisal license.
That official claims she was eventually forced out by Noem’s labor secretary. She filed an age discrimination complaint, which she later dropped after the state paid her $200,000.
Noem didn’t immediately say much about this controversy when the news broke on Sept. 27, but on Friday she put out a video statement that directly addressed it. “I never once asked for special treatment for Kassidy,” she said of her daughter. This isn’t her first time defending herself from nepotism charges. She previously hired her other daughter, who had not yet finished college, as a policy analyst, and South Dakota reporters watched that daughter’s salary jump.
She also last week denied a thinly sourced, anonymous allegation by a conservative website that she had an affair with Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who volunteered as an adviser to Noem. He helped promote her on Fox News and introduce her to Trump allies, the Associated Press reported. “These rumors are total garbage and a disgusting lie,” Noem tweeted. “These old, tired attacks on conservative women are based on a falsehood that we can’t achieve anything without a man’s help.”
At the same time this was in the news, Noem and other Republican campaigns across the country quickly dropped Lewandowski after he was accused by a Trump donor of groping her.
How she’s navigated the Trump era
When Noem was in the U.S. House, she was a quiet, conservative backbencher. Since becoming governor, she has tacked hard to the right, most notably on the coronavirus, and jumped into national battles. But her politics have sometimes collided with governing in ways that have caused tension with the right flank of her party.
A month into the pandemic, she refused to impose widespread stay-at-home orders. “South Dakota is not New York City,” she said at the time. When an outbreak occurred at a pork processing plant, the state became a coronavirus hot spot. Then she pointedly allowed a huge motorcycle rally to go ahead, and it became a superspreader event across the Midwest.
A year later, South Dakota had some of the highest rates of infections and deaths from the virus compared to other hard-hit states. But she twisted data to argue that mandates and social distancing were actually not working in other states.
“She’s created this brand that she can’t walk back from now,” said Joe Sneve, senior political reporter for the Argus Leader. “No matter how bad things got, she’s the liberty governor when it comes to covid. People are moving to South Dakota, and travel here is record high. She sort of put South Dakota on the map.” Sneve said Noem is more popular now than when she took office, a rare feat for a politician.
Noem’s policy moves can often seem guided by searching for ways to put herself on the map on national issues.
She welcomed Trump to Mount Rushmore as he campaigned for reelection, fueling speculation that she was after the vice presidency (then or in 2024), and she basically told Vice President Mike Pence that she wasn’t trying to replace him, the New York Times reported.
This summer, as Republicans were attacking President Biden for migrant crossings at the border, she sent dozens of National Guard soldiers to Texas to help, controversially paid for by a Republican megadonor.
But when she doesn’t embrace the hard line she sets for herself — often because it conflicts with the business community — activists feel betrayed.
Earlier this year, she said she was excited to sign a bill banning transgender girls and women from playing in female sports, but then killed it.
She argued it would pull NCAA tournaments and other business from the state. Conservatives saw her as betraying their values by blocking what should have been a layup bill in conservative South Dakota.
“She was considered a shining star in the GOP with a bright future. No more,” wrote conservative activist Michael Farris on Facebook.
Then came vaccines and the battle over whether to mandate them. Noem was an easy “no” on vaccine mandates, and she was one of the first governors to say she would fight Biden’s federal mandate for large businesses to require vaccinations or regular testing.
But when Republicans pushed her to put that into legislation and ban employer vaccine mandates, she pushed back. Noem argued that it wasn’t conservative to tell businesses what they can and can’t do on vaccines.
“Since when did the Republican Party become the party of big government and social engineering using government power to force behavior?” she wrote.
In part because of these decisions, there is a faction on the far right that doesn’t trust Noem as a “true conservative,” based on its definition of that term. She is battling those same perceptions at home in South Dakota, too.
“She’s built this brand as a hard-liner,” Sneve said, “but folks on the ground here, Republican lawmakers, do not see her as a hard-liner.”
Nevertheless, Noem is still really popular in the state broadly among voters and appears likely to weather whatever an investigation into her daughter’s real estate appraisal certification finds.
Expect this not to be the last time you hear about Noem in national politics.