South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem questioned the grit and instinct of fellow GOP governors who enacted Covid-19 measures like mask mandates and business closures to stop the spread of the virus in their states last year, warning that some of them are now “rewriting history” about their records as the threat wanes across the country.
“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states; that they didn’t close their regions; that they didn’t mandate masks,” said the potential 2024 White House contender as she drew an implicit but obvious contrast to leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took a more restrictive approach in their states. “Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct.”
“Demand honesty from your leaders and make sure that every one of them is willing to make the tough decisions,” added Noem, who repeatedly touted her hands-off approach to Covid-19 throughout her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference – highlighting the fact that she never ordered a “single business” to close. “South Dakota did not do any of those (measures). We didn’t mandate. We trusted our people and it told them that personal responsibility was the best answer.”
Even when cases surged in her state last November, Noem refused to mandate masks and chose not to put in the precautionary measures that many other governors were taking to slow the spread of Covid-19. She insisted that her state had been most effective by swiftly identifying and isolating cases. As of this weekend, South Dakota had 230 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins University – ranking the state 10th in that metric among the 50 states. The state had 14,090 cases per 100,000 people, ranking South Dakota with the third highest rate in the nation.
But in an October op-ed in the Rapid City Journal, Noem rejected “mandatory masking” by noting that some had questioned the effectiveness of masks, calling on each family to make “informed decisions for themselves.”
“As I’ve said before, if folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so,” she wrote in that piece. “Similarly, those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one. And government should not mandate it.”
She became a star headliner at the CPAC conference in Orlando in February, in part by taking aim at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease specialist, and insisting that her party could win by more clearly articulating that conservatives “are not here to tell you how to live your life.” To loud cheers, she said: “I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot.”
Noem’s political future
Her comments Sunday were a shot across the bow from Noem as she positions herself in a field that has been essentially frozen by former President Donald Trump, who is teasing another run for his former office as he falsely claims that his 2020 contest with Joe Biden was rigged.
Noem, who was greeted with a standing ovation at CPAC hours before Trump was slated to speak Sunday, has been defined in part by her intense loyalty to Trump after a year in which she campaigned aggressively to help re-elect him. In a brief exchange with reporters Sunday after her speech, she said she hopes to see Trump run again in 2024. When asked about her own ambitions, she demurred.
“I think he’d be fantastic. He gets up every day and he fights for this country,” Noem said. “Most people when they watched what he and his family went through would be exhausted and quit, out of discouragement. And the fact that he’s still fighting is inspirational to me.”
“Would I run? Oh, I’m not focused on that,” she said when pressed about her White House plans. “I love South Dakota and I worked to come home to South Dakota, so I could be there and be with my people and ride horses for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy.”
When asked whether she would be open to joining Trump on the 2024 ticket as his No. 2, as some GOP voters would like to see her do as a replacement for former Vice President Mike Pence, she said she was “open to going home and putting on my cowboy boots right now. I’ve been in these heels a long time.”