SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem defeated a Democratic state lawmaker on Tuesday to win reelection, leaning heavily on her handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a first term marked by positioning herself for a possible White House bid in 2024.
The Republican governor eased past state Rep. Jamie Smith after raising more than $15 million via a nationwide fundraising network. Noem has said she would serve a full four-year term if reelected, but she generated speculation about higher political ambitions by becoming a fixture in conservative media and making appearances in key 2024 states. Her fundraising haul was a historic amount of money for a South Dakota gubernatorial candidate.
Noem's campaign centered largely on her handling of the state's economy as well as her record of forgoing most government mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 50-year-old Republican vaulted to national prominence within the GOP during her first term after deriding those government mandates.
One of her first priorities for her second term will be delivering on a campaign promise to repeal the state's tax on groceries. On the campaign trail, Noem cast the tax repeal as a way to deliver quick relief to family budgets squeezed by inflation. But in the Legislature, she will have to convince a Republican-controlled Senate that the state government can go without a tax that annually brings in roughly $100 million.
Campaign season got off to a rocky start for Noem as she came under the scrutiny of a state ethics board. In August, the board found evidence that Noem had interfered with a state agency to aid her daughter's real estate appraiser licensure. The board also asked the state's Division of Criminal Investigation to probe her use of the state's airplane, but the prosecutor overseeing the investigation said last month it found nothing to support a criminal prosecution.
The governor has portrayed the complaints as political retribution from former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who filed them as he faced pressure from Noem to resign over his conduct surrounding a fatal car crash with a pedestrian in 2020.
Betty Ammann, a Republican voter, said she was grateful that South Dakota went without many government mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. She voted for Noem.
"I just think she's looking out for the best for our state," Ammann, a nurse, said.
Smith criticized Noem's out-of-state travels as a sign she is more focused on her personal ambition rather than the job at home. He cast himself as a moderate, focused on the state's practical needs and touted a record of bipartisanship as the Democratic leader in the House.
Pat Kraning, a retired school superintendent and registered Republican, declined to say how he voted Tuesday. But he said he felt South Dakotans' voices and local concerns were getting drowned out amid an uproar over nationalized issues, especially in education. Noem has focused on removing certain teachings on race from public schools and universities, though critics say that topics associated with frameworks like critical race theory are rarely an issue in schools.
"It seems like we've spent a great deal of time in South Dakota discussing national issues which I don't know if they're necessarily relevant day to day," Kraning said.
But Smith struggled to raise enough money to compete with Noem. She hit him with ad after ad that labeled him an "extreme liberal" in an effort to peel away moderate voters — a group Smith needs to win over.
Republicans have nearly twice as many registered voters in South Dakota as Democrats, and in some places — including the state's most populated county, Minnehaha — registered Democrats have slipped behind even independents.
Democrats have not won the governor's office since the 1970s.
After Smith voted early Tuesday, he said he was encouraged to see a line at his regular polling place.
"I just want a really good voter turnout across the state," he said. "The more people that vote the better it is for the state of South Dakota. Also, I think it helps my campaign."
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