SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – From the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump called on governors to “liberate” residents, reopen schools and get businesses back to normal.
No governor followed that advice more closely — and with more attention-seeking fervor — than South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
The first-term governor never shut down businesses, never mandated mask-wearing and welcomed two massive public gatherings to her state this summer — a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, which Trump attended, and a motorcycle rally attended by hundreds of thousands of people. When Professional Bull Riders wanted to allow spectators back into the arena, Noem hopped on a horse and brandished the American flag at the event.
“Let’s remember to ‘put our positive pants on,’” the governor said in a recent email to supporters.
Noem was rewarded for her optimism Wednesday with a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. She gave an address hitting the themes she has emphasized during the pandemic — personal responsibility and freedom.
“We are not — and will not be — the subjects of an elite class of so-called experts. We the people are the government,” she said in leading off the convention speeches in Washington Wednesday.
Trump has praised her support for hydrocholorquine as a COVID-19 remedy, despite no proof of its usefulness. He also publicly hailed her lifting of the ban on fireworks at her state's Mount Rushmore, and appeared there with her at a July rally.
The appearance with Trump in July and at the RNC Wednesday capped a year of deliberate work raising her national profile, much of it in consultation with former Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski, who has promoted Noem and opened doors for her.
In return, Noem praised Trump as having “lifted people of all races and backgrounds out of poverty,” despite a global pandemic his administration was slow to address, which led to a deep economic recession.
“You can look back 50 years, and you won’t find anyone that has surpassed President Trump’s success on these four issues alone,” Noem said, referring to the economy, taxes, religious freedom and gun rights.
But at home, it is an awkward time for the governor to celebrate, especially considering her own handling of the crisis.
Health experts are warning the virus is far from done in South Dakota, with the state seeing the nation's third-highest upward trend in daily cases over the last two weeks, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
In recent days, reports of infections tied to the motorcycle rally at Sturgis have popped up in eight states. Noem supported it as health experts warned it could become a super-spreader event.
“Maybe people should listen to the medical experts and not to the politicians,” said Dr. Jawad Nazir, an infectious disease professor at the University of South Dakota medical school.
While news of the infections landed, the governor focused on politics, joining Lewandowski on multiple campaign stops in Pennsylvania, where she appeared without a mask and posed for photos shoulder-to-shoulder with people. She is also scheduled to speak at a Republican event in Iowa next week, an indication that, despite her insistence that she is not interested in running for president, she is placing herself in the conversation of who will take up Trump's mantle.
Noem's coveted exposure at the RNC is a measure of her rising stature in Trump’s Republican Party, which is eager to highlight its female leaders as it vies for female voters.
Along with installing a satellite link-up in her office in Pierre for live television spots, she has traveled widely with Lewandowski, been promoted by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk and accepted the invitation to a Republican county GOP dinner in western Iowa this year.
“We need more women out there,” said Sarah Chamberlain, a GOP strategist, who said Noem has recently come up in focus groups of female voters. “She’s young, she’s intelligent, she’s aggressive. They like that.”
Noem, 48, has angled for increased attention from Trump since shortly after taking office as South Dakota's first female governor in 2019. But before the pandemic, her most eye-catching move was an anti-drug campaign with a tagline — “Meth. We’re On It" — that was savaged by social media.
The pandemic gave her the opportunity to distinguish herself on a national stage. Governing from one of the most sparsely populated states in the country, Noem has championed a hands-off approach to the crisis and made it clear that she believes the dangers of the virus are not as bad as feared.
“I had never seen a situation where people were so gripped by fear and that what we really needed was information in people's hands and give them the opportunity to make the best decision for their family,” she said in a July interview on the podcast “The Charlie Kirk Show.”
Noem has said that widespread infections were inevitable, predicting that up to 70% of people would be infected with the virus and prepping the state's hospitals to handle 5,000 patients. She also followed the president's cue in hoping that hydroxychloroquine was an antidote and worked with the White House to conduct a large-scale trial of the drug.
Noem did not fully divulge the potential scope of the pandemic's impact, declining to provide exact numbers on the state's projected death toll. Documents obtained through a public records request by The Associated Press show that the Department of Health estimated 2,956 people would die from COVID-19 among South Dakota's population of 885,000. Health officials also warned that over 275,000 people were vulnerable to the virus and that the influx of patients could be more than eight times hospitals' capacity.
Early on in the pandemic, Noem discouraged large gatherings, closed schools and issued an order in April directing vulnerable people in two hard-hit counties to stay home.
But the dire projections from epidemiological models have not come to fruition. The virus moved through the state much slower than models predicted, with 161 people dying from COVID-19 so far.
As the number of cases plateaued and dozens, rather than thousands, occupied hospital beds, Noem's strategy on the coronavirus took an increasingly ideological edge. The governor began emphasizing the failure of the epidemiological models in June and arguing that “no model is capable of replacing human freedom" to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
Noem learned to get the White House's attention after once pleading with Trump for more testing supplies. She increased her appearances on Fox News, and on one occasion, she received a call from the administration within 15 minutes of appearing on the network, according to a Republican official with knowledge of the exchange. The official was not authorized to discuss private conversations and demanded anonymity.
Like Trump, Noem was reluctant to wear a mask, casting doubt on a broad consensus by health experts that masks help prevent the spread of the virus, and discouraged schools from requiring students to wear masks. She has yet to appear at a news conference with a mask to the exasperation of health experts and moderate Republicans in her state.
Nazir, the infection disease expert, worries that the lack of masking, combined with large gatherings, could lead to increased spread. Infections from an event like the Sturgis rally, which drew people from all over the country, could be impossible to trace.
“We are dealing with human lives here,” he said.
Others say Noem is harnessing the politics of the pandemic at the expense of people's health. Tom Dempster, a Republican and former lawmaker, said he initially praised the governor's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but believes her pursuit of national attention is dividing the state and discouraging efforts to mitigate infections.
“Today I fear that one is testing fate,” he said of Noem's efforts to hold large events. “We may very well pay for this.”