PIERRE, South Dakota — In June, Gov. Kristi Noem raised eyebrows with a campaign ad that showed her riding horseback across an expanse of grasslands as she told voters to “Saddle Up … We’re Just Getting Started.” The commercial was pushed out on Facebook — not just to voters in her own state, but to the people living in key presidential primary states including New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa.
It immediately sparked talk that the Republican was running for president in 2024.
Watching Noem enter a local business near the state Capitol, the governor exudes all the swagger of a no-nonsense rancher in worn jeans, a cowboy hat and boots. But on the subject of a presidential run, she is coy.
“When people ask me that, I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I’m not convinced that it has to be me. I think there’s a lot of people interested in running for president but … I certainly would never say that I wouldn’t run.”
While the ad is meant to boost her gubernatorial re-election chances come November, Noem said it also serves as a message about all South Dakota has to offer — not just to visit, but as a potential new home.
“In 2020, when the rest of the country was shutting down, we ran ads across the country inviting people to come to South Dakota, and it changed everything for our state economically. People came overwhelmingly and visited and the ads put us on people’s radar,” said Noem, 50.
During the early days of the COVID pandemic, Noem said, she refused to invoke the same vast, sweeping executive powers used by many other governors across the country — forcing millions to work from home and thousands of businesses to permanently close.
Her approach caught the eye of many Americans looking to find a more balanced place to visit, she said.
“When folks started coming here to visit, they soon found out they wanted to live here. So our economy’s thriving and, I believe, the best in the country because of decisions like that.”
She’s not wrong. In 2021, South Dakota jumped 14 spots in the U-Haul Growth Index to No. 11 among states attracting inbound movers. Newcomers accounted for 52% of all one-way U-Haul traffic in South Dakota that year. And the 2021 National Movers Study placed South Dakota at No. 2 in the US for states where people are looking to relocate.
South Dakota is one of the most striking yet least populated states in America, boasting striking rock formations, ancient hot springs, soaring Black Hills and endless hikes for those who love wide-open space. It’s also home to Mount Rushmore, which attracted approximately 2.53 million visitors last year.
Noem started out serving South Dakota in the state legislature in 2007, moving in 2011 to the US House of Representatives, where she stayed until she was sworn in as governor in 2019. Now Noem is running for re-election against South Dakota state Rep. Jamie Smith, in a race she is widely expected to win.
The plain-talking Noem, who is often seen perched on her beloved horse Ice Man, had little money or campaign infrastructure for her first race for Congress, but went on to defeat the incumbent, Democratic US Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. That’s one of the things construction business owner John Morris admires about her, along with her trademark frankness.
“The thing that I like the most about her is she let the businesses and the citizens and the families of South Dakota make their decisions. She kept us educated, let us make our own best choices, stayed in touch with the people of South Dakota daily so we could plan accordingly for our families but also for our businesses,” Morris said.
Noem’s political path is anything but a straight line. It began when she was 22 with the tragic death of her father in an accident on their family ranch and farm. At the time, she was away at college, married and just one month shy of giving birth to her first child — but she moved back and took over the business with her siblings.
“When my dad was killed in an accident, he was 49. We had a pretty large operation and I became the general manager. I would say that most people expected us to fail, expected these kids whose dad left them all this land and machinery and cattle to probably sell and be done because it was challenging times,” she said.
Not only was her beloved father dead, she had to quit college and start two new jobs as a mom and the head of a ranch. “Then we got hit with death taxes. Our debt ratio was pretty significant and banks wouldn’t loan us the money to pay the taxes,” she said.
After knocking on the doors of bank after bank, she said, she finally found one that took a chance on her. “Then they brought in another couple of wealthy farmers that would finance part of it just out of the goodness of their hearts, and we did part of it, but it took us 10 years to pay off those taxes,” she said. She said the injustice of the death taxes is what spurred her to run in 2006 for the state house, where she sponsored several property tax reforms. After being elected to Congress, she continued her college studies online, eventually earning a BA in political science from South Dakota State University in 2012.
Noem has long been known for her conservative stance on the Second Amendment, taxes and abortion. South Dakota has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, banning terminations in all circumstances including rape and incest following the reversal of Roe v. Wade. But that does mean women seeking abortions will be targeted, Noem said.
“It will always be focused towards those doctors who knowingly break the law to perform abortions in our state,” she recently told the CBS News show “Face the Nation.”
The final decision will likely be left up to voters in the near future. A recent statewide poll of 500 registered voters showed that 65% support a statewide referendum to determine South Dakota’s reproductive rights laws, with 76% supporting legal abortions in cases of rape and incest.
The governor and her husband Bryon Noem have three children: daughters Kassidy, 28, and Kennedy, 25, and son Booker, 20. Her eldest made her a grandmother one year ago, and she is happily expecting a second grandchild soon.
But last month, she was hit with allegations of misconduct when a state ethics board said Noem stepped in to help Kassidy get a real estate appraiser license.
The complaints stemmed from Jason Ravnsborg, the state’s former Republican attorney general and a bitter enemy of Noem’s. After Ravnsborg struck and killed a pedestrian in 2020, Noem called for him to resign and asked the state legislature to impeach him. They obliged.
Meanwhile, Noem’s office said the state’s Government Accountability Board has yet to point to a single statute she has violated.
“These complaints are all political and filed by a disgraced former attorney general who literally killed a man, lied about it, and tried to cover it up,” her Communications Director Ian Fury said in a statement. “Governor Noem was the first to call him out for this, and he filed these complaints in retaliation.”
It is a blunt response from a governor who said she is not one to agonize over making a decision if she believes it is the right one.
“It’s not often that I will identify what I think I’m good at, but I think I’m good at decision-maker.”
She said her husband tells her all the time, “You always pick the hardest thing to do.”
“But at the end of the day I have to do what I believe is right, and no matter what decision I make I get all of my team together, get their advice, get their insight, their wisdom. Then when I make a decision, I’m usually fairly confident in it.”
“I don’t agonize over decisions for weeks, and I don’t make a decision and then second guess myself, which I think helps me to sleep at night.”