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Kristi Noem Does D.C.
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Kristi Noem Does D.C.

Plus: MAGA voters test the Haley waters in South Carolina.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Calvin Coolidge Foundation conference at the Library of Congress on February 17. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Incumbency has lots of advantages in politics, but there’s the occasional drawback too. For instance, when you’re the president of the United States, sometimes you have to endure a round of bad press over not shooting down a Chinese spy balloon quickly enough—and then another round of bad press when tightening up your anti-balloon defenses leads to firing $400,000 Sidewinder missiles at $12 hobbyist balloons by mistake. 

Up to Speed

  • South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott kicked off his soft-launch listening tour ahead of a possible presidential campaign last week with a Thursday speech at the Charleston County GOP’s Black History Month gala. This week Scott will head to Iowa for a Wednesday afternoon event at Drake University in Des Moines.
  • Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that he’ll make a decision about whether to run for president “sometime this spring.”
  • Former President Donald Trump and his allies are ramping up their war against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is trying to stay out of the fight until after the end of his state’s spring legislative session. While Trump continued his erratic barrage of scattershot attacks on DeSantis his social media platform Truth Social, some of his allies started pushing a novel falsehood: that DeSantis had been “endorsed” for president by billionaire donor and bogeyman of the right George Soros. In a speech last week, Soros called Trump a “pitiful figure” and said the “shrewd, ruthless, and ambitious” governor of Florida was “likely to be the Republican candidate.” Trump allies like former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake were quick to highlight and inflate the backhanded compliment: “The kiss of death,” Lake tweeted
  • T.J. Shope, Arizona Senate president pro tempore, is considering a U.S. Senate run next year. He announced as much on Twitter Sunday night in response to a Washington Post piece saying Kari Lake had “frozen the field” as she mulls a bid. “Hasn’t frozen me,” he wrote. “We need somebody who can actually win in November and that’s why I’m seriously considering this US Senate seat!” Shope has positioned himself as a pro-Trump conservative during his time in office, but one with a particular small-government streak: In 2021 he sided with state Democrats to kill a bill that would have shut down businesses that refused to serve those who were unvaccinated against COVID-19 on the grounds that “I believe in private property rights.”

Kristi Noem’s D.C. Trial Run

South Dakota isn’t known as a major incubator of presidential talent. The last major-party nominee to hail from the state, Sen. George McGovern, was crushed in a 49-state rout a half-century ago by incumbent President Richard Nixon. But it looks like Gov. Kristi Noem thinks the time is ripe to reset the clock.

Like most of the rest of the likely GOP contenders, Noem has been coy for months about whether she intends to seek the top job: “I’m not convinced I need to run for president,” she told CBS last month, and declined to elaborate to The Dispatch last week: “We’ll keep watching it.” But she’s recently made a series of moves to raise her national profile ahead of next year’s primaries: running nationwide ads designed to trumpet her conservative credentials, making trips to neighboring Iowa, and, last week, giving speeches at three right-leaning institutions in Washington.

Outside of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, no Republican politician saw his or her star rise faster during the COVID-19 pandemic than Noem, who staked out a laissez-faire, pro-freedom approach to pandemic management early: She boasts that South Dakota was the only state in the country to never shut down a business. As other Republicans caught up in the summer of 2020, Noem became something of a folk hero, a reputation she burnished through regular appearances in conservative-friendly media like Fox News. A 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll—one that excluded former president Donald Trump from the running—found her second only to DeSantis among the conference’s attendees.

Her schedule in D.C. suggested Noem would aim to find support across the GOP’s splintered and discordant voting base. On Wednesday, she gave an address to the Trump-friendly America First Policy Institute focusing on the Chinese threat. She highlighted her efforts to block Chinese investors from purchasing South Dakota land and her ban of the Chinese social-media app TikTok from state-owned devices. On Thursday, she spoke at the libertarian Cato Institute, leaning into her pandemic record and antipathy toward state overreach. And on Friday, she delivered remarks at a forum hosted by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation on the 100th anniversary of Coolidge’s taking office, extolling “the last president to actually shrink the size of the federal government.”

Still, as a small-state governor, she’d still be a longshot’s longshot in a presidential primary, and one with at least one significant structural weakness: She’s occasionally provoked the ire of the anti-“woke” activists that are the sharpest-elbowed members of the social-conservative constellation. In 2021, Noem killed a bill that would have banned biological males from participating in high school and college sports in South Dakota, arguing it would have attracted unwinnable lawsuits under Title IX and been “a trial lawyer’s dream” that would have permitted parents to sue one another for damages over sports-team participation or use of vaguely defined “performance enhancing drugs.” Conservative media lambasted her; Tucker Carlson said she’d “caved to the NCAA.”

This year, South Dakota revisited the issue, and Noem signed an updated version of the bill, one that eliminated some of the provisions she’d previously taken issue with, including the ability for parents to sue other parents for damages and the requirement for all student athletes to submit an annual affidavit testifying as to their biological sex. Social-conservative groups that had denounced her now sang her praises

“She’s beloved for her resistance to lockdowns during COVID, and she’s built a reputation as a staunch conservative who fights,” Jon Schweppe, policy director for the American Principles Project—and a one-time militant Noem critic—told The Dispatch. “There were some hiccups on social issues a couple years back, but give her some credit—she’s signed some of the strongest bills in the country opposing gender ideology. That’s going to be a strength for her if she runs for president.”

Even so, this is a Republican presidential primary—where RINO squish accusations are likely to fly heavy and thick, and the slightest whiff of perceived weakness could spell a death sentence for a base-courting candidate like Noem. Whether what’s good enough for the activists will be good enough for the voters remains to be seen.

In South Carolina, Some Former MAGA Voters Test the Options

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—If you’re convinced former President Donald Trump has the GOP’s 2024 nomination under lock and key, maybe listen to some of the voters who showed up here to cheer on Nikki Haley as she announced her White House bid. 

Haley may be an imperfect vessel through which to evict Trump from his position as titular head of the Republican Party and frontrunner to lead the party’s ticket next year. She begins the race as an underdog with uncertain prospects; even some Haley partisans have their doubts about the former United States ambassador to the United Nations. That’s beside the point.

So far, the support Haley is mustering at home in South Carolina, the key early primary state she led as governor until Trump tapped her for his Cabinet, is coming directly from voters previously hospitable to the former president. These are Republican voters who proactively supported Trump in South Carolina’s 2016 primary, boosting him to a convincing victory, because they believed he was the best candidate for the job but who today are convinced otherwise.

“I don’t regret it, but I do think it’s time for change,” Debra Vallentine, 56, told The Dispatch of her past votes for Trump as she waited for Haley’s kickoff rally to begin. “As a school teacher, I know no matter how passionate you feel about something, you have to go about it in a way that you don’t disengage other people and so I think for me, I’d rather go with Nikki Haley or someone who approaches things more diplomatically.”

“Don was the best choice at the moment,” said Ed Ames, 63, another Haley rally-goer and Republican voter who backed Trump in the state’s 2016 GOP primary over a wealth of accomplished alternatives. “But it’s time for a new change.”

In other words, if your hot take on the grassroots conservatives showing up to Haley campaign events is that they are nothing more than GOP establishmentarians, Never Trumpers, and other Republicans never in the 45th president’s camp to begin with, think again. 

These previously enthusiastic Trump voters may or may not pull the lever for Haley—if her campaign survives until next year’s South Carolina Republican primary. (Maybe they’ll vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or popular home-state Sen. Tim Scott, or former Vice President Mike Pence, or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or …) But their conclusion, this early, that it’s time for a “new change” reveals a fundamental weakness in the Trump campaign.

David Herron, a 52-year old military veteran, called Trump a “great president.” He’s planning to vote for Haley.

“I loved his policies, I just didn’t love his personality,” Herron said. “If he could just tone his attitude down and quit trying to pick fights with everybody and just stuck to the policies. But at this point, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Doubling down on a dead end: Michigan has long been a blueish-purple state, but last cycle was a particularly grisly one for Republicans: Not only did GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon lose to incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by double digits, but Democrats were swept into power in both houses of the state legislature as well. How did Michigan Republicans respond? By elevating as their new party chair one of the nation’s most radical election deniers: Kristina Karamo, who continues to insist that her loss in last November’s secretary of state race was attributable to rampant voter fraud. (Karamo lost by 14 points, or more than 615,000 votes. If nefarious forces illicitly swung the race to the Democrats, they were unbelievably good at it, somehow managing to modify nearly 15 percent of all ballots cast in the state without detection.) Many Michigan Republicans have been demoralized by the state party’s recent turn, and one former operative didn’t mince words: Karamo’s election “mercifully accelerates the race to rock bottom,” the operative told The Dispatch. “State party won’t have the money to keep the lights on or flush the toilets. Utterly abolishes the notion that we have a functioning state party to begin with. Best case scenario, expedites the argument to hit the reset button. The sooner the better.” Donald Trump saw it a little differently: “Congratulations to Kristina Karamo, a powerful and fearless Election Denier,” he wrote on Truth Social. The New York Times stated that ‘This cements the Party’s takeover by Trump loyalists.’ I don’t call them loyalists, I call them GREAT AMERICAN PATRIOTS!!!”
  • Outside cash operation kicks off for Haley: A new super PAC, launched the same day Nikki Haley kicked off her 2024 presidential campaign, was formed to boost the former ambassador’s bid for the Republican nomination. Named SFA Inc.—a hat-tip to Stand for America, the name of Haley’s pre-campaign political operation—the former ambassador’s designated super PAC can be expected to run both positive and negative advertising supporting her campaign. Super PACs are prohibited by federal law from coordinating with candidates and their campaigns. But they are permitted to accept donations in unlimited amounts, offering candidates another way to raise money and compete with their opponents. In the last two decades, it has become standard practice for presidential contenders to complement their campaigns with a super PAC where their supporters, especially the wealthy kind who can write big checks, are directed to send their money. Republican operative Mark Harris, previous adviser to former Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, is the lead strategist for SFA Inc.

Notable and Quotable

“I don’t focus on President Trump. It’s amazing that the media wants to talk about that so much. I am focused on Joe Biden.”

—Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Fox News Sunday, February 19, 2023

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Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

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David M. Drucker

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

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Audrey Fahlberg

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.