Noem to RNC Donors: 'No Single Person Can Save This Country'
(AP Photo/Stephen Groves)
Noem to RNC Donors: 'No Single Person Can Save This Country'
(AP Photo/Stephen Groves)
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Kristi Noem knows exactly how she made it into the spotlight.

“Most of you probably had no idea who I was a year ago,” the South Dakota governor admitted during private remarks to some of the Republican National Committee’s wealthiest and most loyal donors this past weekend in South Florida. “The only reason you probably found out who I was, was because the liberals started beating me up for all the decisions I was making.” And for that introduction, Noem has two people in particular to thank: Rachel Maddow and Elizabeth Warren.

There probably weren’t many MSNBC viewers among the party elite who had gathered behind the closed doors of the Four Seasons banquet room in Palm Beach. There were definitely fewer — if any — fans of the progressive senator from Massachusetts. But Noem referenced those two by name because they, and many more like them during the darker days of the pandemic, “were calling me irresponsible, reckless, and a denier.” Now the party elite call her a potential presidential candidate.

And so the governor from the state with the nation’s fifth-smallest population did her best to build on the national introduction that made her a budding GOP star and to address the criticism that has made her a pariah in certain social-conservative circles. Speaking for 20 minutes, she invoked Ronald Reagan in the first 90 seconds. References to Nathan Hale and Margaret Thatcher followed, according to a recording obtained exclusively by RealClearPolitics. Then came praise for Donald Trump, a president who Noem said “showed up and fought for us every single day.”

But as Republicans consider their path forward as the minority party in Washington, the first-term governor told the party faithful that “really what I want to talk to you about today is that I don't believe one single person can save this country.”

“I do think that every single one of us has a part, though, and I just feel like I have a part,” she followed up. Noem insisted in front of a packed crowd that deep down she is “an introvert” who would rather spend her free time “chasing cows” on horseback or “hunting something.” But the range will have to wait. Noem told a familiar story of an encroaching socialist threat from an increasingly emboldened left, hell-bent on indoctrinating America’s youth, a message that the GOP donors readily received, judging by their frequent applause.

She recalled hushed conversations in the halls of Congress during her four terms there that led her to believe “I served in the House with 60 or 70 socialists.”

She has since watched from out west as leftism emerged from those shadows: “Now look at how they proudly stand up at press conferences and declare their belief in socialist policies, some of them communist policies, and wrap their arms around it, deluding our kids and our grandkids into thinking that is the future.”

She said, “We’ve got a big job in front of us as Republicans.”

With the danger -- as perceived by GOP eyes -- firmly established, the stage seemed to be set for a reveal of future White House ambitions. If she has any, though, Noem only hinted at them in Palm Beach. So far, she insists she’s focused on winning the governor’s mansion a second time in 2022. She still made the most of her moment, living up to her relatively sudden celebrity on the right by talking about the things still to be done.

When the pandemic began, other governors moved swiftly to slow the spread of COVID by shutting down their states. Not Noem, and the RNC crowd applauded as she listed the things she did not do. “I wanted to make sure I stayed within my authorities, because when you have a leader that oversteps their authority in a time of crisis,” Noem warned, “that's when you break this country.”

And so, there were no lockdowns, no shelter-in-place orders, and certainly no mask mandates. It was a quick summary of a state that seemed to exist in a parallel universe during the pandemic, and Noem made sure to speak of the coronavirus in the past tense, declaring, “We got through it together.”

While her rural state ranks towards the bottom in terms of total reported COVID cases, when adjusted for population, it comes in 13th with 13,552 cases per 100,000. The governor, however, focused on a different set of metrics, even as the state set an impressive milestone: According to state health authorities, 50% of South Dakota residents have received at least one COVID vaccine dose. But Noem bragged instead about the lowest unemployment rate in the nation (2.9%) and the highest GDP growth in the last quarter of 2020 (9.9% compared to second-place Texas’ 7.5%).

“I told the people of South Dakota that I would ask them to trust me, and told them I was going to trust them. I was going to let them use personal responsibility to make the best decisions for their family, and also give them the flexibility they needed to keep their doors open, take care of their customers and their employees, and be able to get through it together,” Noem said proudly. “My people in South Dakota are happy. They are happy because they are free.”

It was the kind of rhetoric that, when combined with criticism from liberal corners, has made Noem a rising star on the right. There were rumors, short-lived but still significant over the summer, that Trump would replace Mike Pence on his ticket with her. The governor reportedly tamped those down quickly during a visit with the vice president. Nearly a year later, though, the presidential buzz continues.

A straw poll at the Conservative Political Acton Committee earlier this year had Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis winning the GOP nomination if Trump doesn’t seek it. Second place went to Noem with 11% support, well ahead of more established political brands such  as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But if Noem reveled in the liberal criticism that made her a celebrity, she bristled at a recent critique from social conservatives. “We are used to getting attacked by the left,” the governor said. “Recently, though, I felt a little attacked by the right, and it was on the issue of women's sports.

“I want to tell you the truth,” she continued, “because this gives us another opportunity to talk about the deception of the media.”

Noem had championed legislation that would have banned biological males from competing in girls' public-school sports. On International Women’s Day no less, she even tweeted that she was “excited to sign this bill very soon.”

When it arrived on her desk, though, Noem sent it back to the legislature with “style and form” changes. She insisted in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News that, as written, the bill was “a trial lawyer's dream.” Reworking the text of the legislation was necessary, she explained, because “I’m not interested in picking a fight we can’t win.”

Lawmakers then refused to make the requested rewrites, social conservatives were furious, and some in the conservative media exploded. Henry Olsen, a columnist for the Washington Post, dubbed it “the veto that could undo Kristi Noem’s presidential ambitions.” If the governor has such aspirations, she sought to set the record straight this past weekend.

Not only did she sign two executive orders barring biological men from competing in girls’ sports at both the K-12 and collegiate level, she told the donors in Palm Beach that she was the only public official who had fought to keep boys and girls from competing against each other in 4-H Rodeo.

“What surprised me so much [when] getting attacked by my friends was that they haven't even bothered to look at my history and who I was,” Noem said, “and they've created doubt with people that should know what a fighter” she is.

As the Palm Beach speech wound down, the 49-year-old mother of three promised that conservatives would win on the issue of transgender athletes in sports, “but we also have to make sure that we do our homework, that we know who our partners are, and that we don't necessarily just believe what the media tells us.”

She warned that just as conservatives accuse liberals of being manipulated by the media, “sometimes we are guilty of it too.” The governor added that there will be a host of fights on spending and social policy, “on values and principles — things I never thought we'd ever have to fight on before, but I'm not going to quit.”

Then came the reference to the first female prime minister of Great Britain: “As Margaret Thatcher said — remember her? ‘The Iron Lady’? She said, ‘You turn if you want to, but this lady's not for turning.” At that line, the crowd applauded.



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