SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Kristi Noem had been South Dakota's governor for less than six months when she made clear she wasn’t going to let her job in the sleepy capital of Pierre keep her out of national politics — or off President Donald Trump’s radar.
The 48-year-old Republican had a TV studio with live hookup capability installed in the governor's office. She started seeking advice from Trump’s former adviser Corey Lewandowski, who worked to raise her profile within conservative circles.
Then came the pandemic.
Now Noem's pursuit of the spotlight comes with much higher stakes. While many other governors have broken from Trump on the need for stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of coronavirus and on when to restart the economy, Noem has tracked close to the president. She declined to impose broad restrictions on business and public activity, resisting calls from doctors. And when Trump touted a malaria drug as a potential remedy for the disease, she was among the first to launch a trial of the drug, despite no proof of its effectiveness.
That’s earned her praise from conservative activists and the attention of the president, who last week announced plans to visit the state for an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore, complete with once-banned fireworks.
The White House sees her as someone trying to “push back against the grain,” said Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and close Trump ally. “That’s hero status in the conservative movement.”
But it’s also drawn criticism even from Republicans in her solidly red state, who say she’s been slow to lead the response and seems focused on climbing the political ladder. They worry, along with health experts, that the fallout from her decisions hasn't yet been felt. The state’s virus caseload isn’t expected to peak until June.
"No governor has faced this enormous a test before, but this is the kind of challenge they will be judged on,” said Gail Gitcho, a Republican strategist and former communications director for the Republican Governors Association. For Noem’s national profile, Gitcho added, “it becomes her leadership resume for future office.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Noem has stuck to a hands-off approach, refusing to order businesses to close and rejecting calls for sweeping stay-at-home orders. She's held her ground even as mayors and doctors — including the state's largest medical association — called for stricter measures.
Noem argued that would only delay the peak of infections and extend disruption of daily life. She invoked the state ethos of individualism and said she trusted South Dakotans to be responsible.
“Our states are very diverse, very different," Noem said Tuesday, comparing her approach to governors in populous East Coast states. “South Dakota is not like New York, it’s not like New Jersey,” she said during a Fox News Channel interview.
An outbreak at a pork processing plant has created a hot spot in South Dakota. The county that includes Sioux Falls, the state's largest city, has a per-capita infection rate 15% lower than Manhattan’s, although the rate of deaths is much lower, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
“I did get kind of ridiculed by the media for telling people in my press conferences, if you’re scared and you’re fearful, to stay home," Noem told Kirk during a podcast recorded last week.
It's not just the media who have questioned her approach. Fellow Republican Paul TenHaken, the mayor of Sioux Falls, said she was not doing enough to stop a spike in infections after an outbreak at a Smithfield pork-processing plant eventually sickened 853 employees, including two who died. Noem ultimately joined TenHaken in asking Smithfield to temporarily close the plant.
Despite that, Noem tends to dig in when challenged. Most famously, she stood by her anti-drug campaign — tagline: “Meth, We’re on it” — after it became the butt of jokes. After facing criticism for hiring her daughter as a policy adviser, Noem gave her a bigger job and a hefty raise.
Noem has largely praised the Trump administration throughout the crisis — even in March, when the state health lab ran out of supplies and had to halt tests for several days. That has resulted in access to Trump and his advisers. During a call with Trump last week, she pressed for flexibility in using her state's $1.25 billion in relief funding to offset sharp state revenue declines. Trump invited Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin onto the call to discuss the possibility, Noem later told reporters.
Noem's increased contact with the White House comes after several months of close consultation with Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager.
The two were among roughly 40 conservative guests, including Kirk and Donald Trump Jr., who attended an annual deep-sea fishing trip last summer off British Columbia hosted and paid for by Wyoming GOP donor Foster Friess.
Lewandowski has since opened doors for Noem to conservative leaders and audiences, according to two South Dakota Republicans with direct knowledge of Lewandowski's role who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the private conversations.
And Noem, with Lewandowski's help, became a more regular presence on Fox News Channel, regular viewing in the White House.
Many South Dakota Republicans say she's widely viewed as seeking a job in Washington, whether in Trump's administration or beyond.
“I have been suspicious of that for a while," said Lance Russell, a Republican state senator who has been an outspoken critic of the governor.
Noem’s spokeswoman Maggie Seidel said it's “unequivocally false” that Noem is looking for an administration job. Seidel said Noem received an offer to interview for a Cabinet position before being elected governor, but turned it down.
A rancher’s daughter, Noem left college midway through her studies to take over the business when her father died, a moment she describes as the first step toward a political path seeking lower taxes and personal freedom.
After serving in the state legislature, Noem swept into the House with the tea party wave in 2010 and served eight years. She won the governor’s office with just 51 percent of the vote in 2018.
An appearance with Trump at Mount Rushmore could boost Noem’s popularity. She suggested this week that she’ll be there to meet him. But her standing may depend more on whether South Dakotans feel safe coming out to watch the show.
Of the new scrutiny, Noem told Fox, “It’s an important time that will show us what kind of leadership we have in this country.”
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.