Ever since contenders started lining up for the Republican nomination for South Dakota governor, the race has been a high-profile political showdown with unquestionably high stakes.
U.S. Representative Kristi Noem and Attorney General Marty Jackley have played prominent roles in public service for nearly two decades and are well-known to voters. Their challenge was to prove that they were best suited to tackle a new role as chief executive of the state and distinguish themselves from their opponent.
On the Democratic side, Billie Sutton is a solid candidate with his own impressive resume. But the fact that South Dakota hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly half a century adds to the importance of the GOP primary June 5.
As crucial as it is to have a strong, reliable presence to head the state, an influx of new ideas and fresh leadership also looms large. Dating back to Dennis Daugaard’s stint as lieutenant governor under Mike Rounds, elements of the current administration have been in place for 14 years, and Jackley’s time in the attorney general and U.S. attorney’s offices dates back even longer.
The vestiges of EB-5 and Gear Up scandals – even as Jackley has worked to prosecute many of those involved – exist for many as a symptom of a stale status quo in Pierre, marred by a chronic lack of accountability involving those in power.
Both GOP candidates have vowed to transform Pierre if they are elected governor, but only Noem can turn the page by her very presence. She can make history as the state’s first female governor while bringing a different style of leadership, and we believe she is the best choice for the Republican nomination.
The 46-year-old rancher won her U.S. House seat in 2010 after serving four years in the state legislature. She talks of being stymied as part of the 435-member chamber during the Obama administration but finding her footing as a loyal soldier for President Trump, helping to bring home the tax reform package as a member of the Ways and Means Committee.
Noem’s decision to run for governor was a bold political move that speaks to her level of confidence and support, in addition to her desire to return home. She clearly felt ready to move from soldier to general, acting as chief executive for a state in which her farm-based background and across-the-board conservatism play well even amid complaints of a “broken” Washington.
Noem’s dismissive comments about task forces and boards seem a bit naïve considering the complex policy issues that any governor faces. But her demand for greater transparency and willingness to tear down traditional norms in state government make the possibility of a Noem administration intriguing.
Her federal background with Native American concerns and talk of making progress with one tribe to spark momentum shows a willingness to tackle an issue on which most governors have failed to gain traction.
Jackley’s grasp of South Dakota issues and challenges is equally strong but mainly stems from his background as the state’s top prosecutor, a common trajectory in politics but one worthy of context.
His get-tough approach to sentencing and drug enforcement has failed to put a serious dent in the state’s crime numbers, clouding what could have been a banner issue for his campaign.
Jackley has also struggled at times to separate his role as attorney general from his candidacy for governor, evidenced recently by accusations of impropriety involving a delayed settlement to a former DCI agent that could have potentially hurt his campaign.
Jackley denied any role in the settlement negotiations, but the director of the state’s Office of Risk Management said that the attorney general “was occasionally briefed as to the negotiations and the settlement agreement and allowed to offer input,” pursuant to state law.
In a high-stakes showdown for the GOP nomination, one candidate offers the possibility of a bold new vision in state governance that might be too enticing to pass up. That candidate is Kristi Noem.