Kristi Noem may be the governor of South Dakota, but she sure is spending a lot of time out of the state in recent months.
Noem was in Texas last Wednesday to deliver a speech at an event honoring veterans and then, on Friday, she participated in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Arlington, Texas -- riding into the arena on horseback carrying an American flag as part of the opening ceremonies.
Two days later, Noem was in Georgia -- acting as a media surrogate for Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) following a debate in that state's Senate race.
As the Sioux Falls Argus leader noted of Noem's travel:
"The Georgia and Texas trips mark the latest in dozens of out-of-state outings on Noem's calendar in recent months, first campaigning in multiple battleground states in support of President Trump's re-election bid."
On one level, none of this is surprising. Noem is someone who has made little secret of her interest in national politics; she abandoned a safe House seat in 2018 to run (and win) the South Dakota governorship -- the first ever woman to do so -- and ever since has been mentioned as someone who might wind up on a Republican national ticket one day.
But what is somewhat surprising -- and deeply telling -- is how Noem has suddenly become a national figure within the GOP: Through her outspoken resistance to instituting proven mitigation measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has devastated her state.
Noem was one of a handful of governors to refuse to issue a stay-at-home order back in the spring when the first wave of Covid-19 hit the United States. She came out last month in defiance of a potential national mask mandate proposed by President-elect Joe Biden, saying she would not comply with such an order.
She's even cast doubts about the proven efficacy of mask-wearing to slow the spread of the virus. Here's Noem in an op-ed from the Rapid City Journal in October:
"There are many others who question the effectiveness of masks, and South Dakotans should take the time to read this information so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. As I've said before, if folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so. Similarly, those who don't want to wear a mask shouldn't be shamed into wearing one. And government should not mandate it. We need to respect each other's decisions -- in South Dakota, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.
"Recently, a South Dakota doctor wrote me, thanking me 'for treating your fellow citizens of South Dakota like adults...' I tell you this because there are also some South Dakota medical professionals who have written to tell me of their fears about voicing their thoughts on the situation."
These decisions, according to Noem, have made her state a success story in the fight against Covid-19. As she wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Monday:
"Rather than following the pack and mandating harsh rules, South Dakota provides our residents with information about what is happening on the ground in our state—the science, facts and data. Then, we ask all South Dakotans to take personal responsibility for their health, the health of their loved ones, and—in turn—the health of our communities. The state hasn't issued lockdowns or mask mandates. We haven't shut down businesses or closed churches. In fact, our state has never even defined what an "essential business" is. That isn't the government's role."
The facts about South Dakota's experience with coronavirus tell a very different story, however.
According to data compiled by The New York Times, South Dakota has the second-most cases per 100,000 residents in the country -- behind only North Dakota. It ranks ninth among states for total deaths per 100,000 people. And on Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services reported data that "shows multiple South Dakota hospitals are experiencing a burden of patients and staffing shortages," according to the Rapid City Journal.
Despite all of those facts, Noem's refusal to put in place measures to reduce the spread of the virus has turned her into a star among the Trump-dominated Republican base.
Back in early October, President Donald Trump praised Noem via Twitter for her unwillingness to institute any sort of lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus; "Great job South Dakota!," he wrote. Charlie Kirk, the head of a young conservatives group and one of the most outspoken and ardent supporters of Trump in the country, told The Associated Press that Noem's willingness to buck guidance on stay-at-home orders and mask mandates has given her "hero status in the conservative movement."
For her part, Noem has embraced her role as a crusader against, uh, best practices to fight the virus -- or, as she would describe it, government overreach and political correctness.
"Listen, we have leaders right now that are overstepping their authority in a time of crisis and taking away the freedoms that these warriors have fought for," Noem said in her speech to the veterans group in Texas. "We are losing our perspective."
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