South Dakota’s Noem, Thune repel GOP challenges from right

·4 min read

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has elevated her national prominence through a hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions, won the Republican primary on Tuesday against a former legislative leader who accused her of using the office to mount a 2024 White House bid.

The first-term governor’s primary win against former South Dakota House Speaker Steve Haugaard gives her a commanding advantage as she seeks another term in November against Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith, who did not face a primary challenger.

Noem has used this election fundraising cycle to collect a record amount of money for a South Dakota gubernatorial candidate — bringing in more than $15 million from a series of fundraisers all over the country.

“She was one of the only governors who stood firm in not using the pandemic to increase government intrusions in our lives,” said Kerry Larson, a Republican voter from Sioux Falls. “It says a lot about her and how she will govern under pressure.”

But Noem has also struggled to manage Statehouse politics at times, publicly clashing with Republican legislators with whom she disagrees.

Haugaard had attempted to turn the tables on Noem's 2018 campaign promise to increase government transparency. He has pointed to ethics complaints she faces for using state-owned airplanes to attend political events and taking a hands-on role in a state agency while it was evaluating her daughter's application for a real estate appraiser license.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, also won his primary against two challengers who joined the race after Thune drew the ire of former President Donald Trump. Trump speculated the senator's career was “over” after he made public statements dismissing the former president's lies about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Neither of the challengers was well-funded or well-known in the state, and in a sign that Thune was positioned for victory, Trump has steered clear of South Dakota.

Thune is a longtime fixture as the state GOP’s elder statesman, and if he wins reelection to a fourth term, he is a likely pick to succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader. He will face Democrat Brian Bengs, an Air Force veteran and college professor, in November's general election.

Thune alluded to his prominence in Washington in a statement celebrating the win, saying he would “continue putting South Dakota's interests on the national agenda" and labeling President Joe Biden's agenda as a “radical, left-wing crusade.”

Thune's status in Washington factored into Republican Sandra Pay's vote, saying it would be “crazy” to vote out someone with Thune's Senate leadership post.

“He's got power,” she said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson is facing a primary challenge from state lawmaker Taffy Howard for the state’s lone House spot. The $300,000 her campaign has raised has been dwarfed by Johnson’s $1.8 million, but a number of national political action committees spent money in the race as it began to look competitive.

The congressman has taken a measured approach on most issues and has touted his work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Problem Solvers Caucus. Howard has tried to challenge him from the right, creating a primary race that will show just how strong the more extreme wing of the Republican Party has grown in South Dakota.

That intraparty conflict has been fought across a slate of legislative primary races where Republicans have launched attack ads against each other. Establishment Republicans are trying to weed out a group of contrarian lawmakers who have pushed the Legislature further right.

However, Republican voter Kim McKoy said Tuesday one thing was on her mind as she cast her vote: “Economy, economy, economy.”

She mostly voted against incumbents.

“I listen to these people talk and I'm like, ‘Do you care that people are struggling?’ I just don't think they do," she said. "I think they care about their causes and they've lost their minds.”

Primary voters will also decide on an amendment to the state constitution, proposed by Republican lawmakers, that would make it more difficult to pass ballot initiatives that raise taxes or spend public funds. The proposal would place a 60% vote threshold on ballot measures to raise taxes or spend more than $10 million within five years of enactment.

Democrat Joshua Matzner said he voted against the proposal because it would erode the power of citizens to change laws through the ballot.

“We prefer to be able to actually make a decision in our government,” he said.

Stephen Groves, The Associated Press

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