Kristi Noem talks RINOs and donkeys (but no dogs) at California Republican convention

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addressed California Republicans Saturday in a speech heavy with farm stories and livestock metaphors, though she did not address controversy over shooting her own dog and skated over the criticism she’s received since her new memoir’s publication.

Noem, whose name has been floated as a potential running mate to former president Donald Trump, addressed delegates during a lunchtime keynote at the California Republican Party’s spring convention Saturday in Burlingame.

The conservative governor has faced backlash since the publication of her new memoir “No Going Back,” for including a story about shooting and killing a dog she described as untrainable and for a false claim that she met with North Korea’s leader, which she has since said will be removed from the book.

Speaking at the convention, she said her book is about RINOs, or “Republicans In Name Only” (“I name a few of them in the book”); donkeys (used to guard cattle from coyotes, though if there’s more than one donkey they “just want to be friends ... I think there’s only room for one donkey somewhere in this country”) and the American bison, animals that “walk into the storm to get through it faster.”

She described “fighting” the media about the truth of her book and at one point she said it is “hard to see people act like you don’t have a heart.”

California Republicans gave the South Dakota governor a warm reception, applauding when she described the small-government structure of her state and jeering when she contrasted herself with Gov. Gavin Newsom.

South Dakota Gov. Kristie Noem is embraced by a supporter before speaking at the CAGOP Convention on Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Airport hotel in Burlingame.
South Dakota Gov. Kristie Noem is embraced by a supporter before speaking at the CAGOP Convention on Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Airport hotel in Burlingame.

Noem said when she’s presented with a new bill or policy proposal, the first thing she asks is whether it is constitutional.

“The biggest contrast between your governor and me is I don’t know if he ever asks that question,” she said of Newsom, to laughter from the audience. “I think your governor just says, ‘I’m going to do whatever the hell I want to do.’”

Noem touted her decision to keep businesses open during the COVID-19 pandemic, describing governors who imposed closures and other restrictions as “dictators” and receiving thunderous applause when she brought up hosting Trump for a 4th of July celebration at Mount Rushmore in 2020.

Noem described Trump as a “very good friend” and criticized his trial in New York over alleged hush money payments as a “sham” and “persecution.”

After the speech, Noem greeted supporters and signed copies of her book.

Republicans at the convention praised Noem’s efforts to improve South Dakota’s economy but described her decision to include the dog story as an unforced error.

Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher, who runs a farm in rural Sutter County, said there’s “maybe an urban-rural divide” over the controversy.

“There are times when you have to put animals down,” he said. “Those of us from agricultural areas know that that’s true.”

Betsy Mahan, chair of the Sacramento County Republican Party, described herself as an animal lover who owns horses, dogs, cats and chickens.

“My biggest concern is the thousands of dogs that are taken to shelters and put down because people can’t afford to keep them anymore,” Mahan said, adding that people upset about Noem’s story should adopt a dog from a shelter.

Gallagher, top Assembly Republican, acknowledged that the story likely hurt Noem’s reputation among animal lovers. “On the surface, people had a negative response to that. I think that’s understandable,” he said, before calling it an example of “gotcha politics.”

“Let’s talk about issues,” Gallagher said. “When I’m critical of the governor, I’m not calling out personal things. I’m calling out how I believe he’s failing to govern or how I believe he’s failing to be transparent.”

For himself, the Nicolaus Republican said he has a Labrador named Charlie who, though “unruly,” retrieved his first duck on a hunting trip last year.