The Governor Who Wants to Be Trump’s Next Apprentice

As every politician knows, openly campaigning for the job of vice president is bad form. But Kristi Noem doesn’t seem to care.

Last week alone, the South Dakota governor sent out a dozen tweets praising Donald Trump. She went on Fox News’s Hannity to condemn attempts in Maine and Colorado to remove the former president from the ballot. And she hosted a get-out-the-caucus rally for him across the border in Iowa. “Show up for a couple hours and fight for the man that’s fought for you for years!” the 52-year-old governor told the crowd at the event in Sioux City. “The only reason that we have this country is because of the good that he did when he was in that White House—and how he still continues to tell the truth out there every single day.”

Asked by a reporter at the event whether she would consider the Trump VP slot, Noem smiled and replied, “I think anybody in this country, if they were offered it, needs to consider it.” Later, she retweeted the clip.

Noem’s name has been popping up on vice-presidential shortlists in the media—and in Republican focus groups—for a while now. The way that she has defended and mimicked Trump’s actions for the past several years suggests that as his VP, she would be more of an enabler than a moderating force—and aggressive on Trump’s behalf in a way that Mike Pence never was. Picking Noem as his running mate would signal that Trump will be even less willing in a second term to kowtow to the Republican establishment. Compared with two other names that also appear regularly in shortlists, Noem would be more comfortable in MAGA world than the GOP conference chair Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, but less kooky than the Trump loyalist and Senate candidate Kari Lake. Noem also has more actual governing experience than either.

It’s still early in the primary season. Republicans have yet to settle on a nominee, and although all signs point to Trump, even his own team claims it hasn’t officially begun the brainstorming process for a running mate. “Much too soon for any of that talk,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign, told me. Typically, a VP candidate is not announced until around the time of the convention, months after the presidential primary is concluded. Unofficially, though, the audition process began long ago.

Noem will be “very competitive,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, told me. “She’s burnishing her MAGA credentials, and the more she comes across as a fire-breathing populist, that’ll help her.” (The governor did not respond to my requests for an interview.)

Noem, a former farm girl and South Dakota beauty queen, was elected in 2018 as the state’s first female governor. Before that, she spent four years in the state legislature and another eight in the U.S. Congress as South Dakota’s sole House representative. But most Americans probably heard Noem’s name for the first time in 2020, when she made national news for her laissez-faire approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

Like most governors, at the start of the virus’s spread, Noem closed schools and ordered businesses to follow CDC guidelines. But quickly, taking cues from the Trump administration, she let up on those regulations. Noem never issued a statewide mask mandate, and she encouraged counties to return to business as usual sooner than other states did. She welcomed the return of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in late summer of 2020, which ultimately resulted in “widespread transmission” of the virus throughout the Midwest, according to a study from the CDC. Her office used $5 million in pandemic-relief funds for an ad campaign promoting state tourism.

Her pandemic-era decisions were evidence of bold, freedom-loving leadership, Noem has said, and her handling of the crisis remains a top bragging point as she travels the country giving speeches and hosting fundraisers. In other ways, too, Noem has perfectly reflected the zeitgeist of the modern Republican Party. She has repeated Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” In 2022, she signed legislation banning transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams; last year, she called upon an adviser from the conservative Hillsdale College to rework the state’s social-studies curriculum as part of a broader effort to eliminate “critical race theory” from public schools. “She’s brought legislation that is increasingly far-right for South Dakota—more so than any previous governor,” Bob Mercer, a longtime journalist in the state’s capital, Pierre, told me.

Noem has also seemed much more focused on securing national media attention than past state leaders. In 2020, she built the first TV studio in the state capitol, and she’s become a regular on Newsmax, Fox News, and other major conservative outlets. Last spring, she signed a gun-related executive order onstage during a speech at the annual NRA convention in Indiana. (In that address, Noem boasted that her 2-year-old granddaughter already had a shotgun and a rifle.)

She has also brought in several aides with national political experience, including the former Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski. And she kicked off a new national “Freedom Works Here” ad campaign that urges Americans living all over the country to move to South Dakota for jobs. Noem has starred in each of the spots, cosplaying as various members of the South Dakota workforce, including a welder, a plumber, and a nurse.

Trump has always favored a culture warrior, and Noem’s political choices alone are enough to warrant VP consideration. But the governor, who is married with three children, can also claim the kind of corn-fed American backstory that voters love and that most Republican politicians wish they had. She spent her childhood pulling calves and driving grain carts on the family farm. As a teenager, she was crowned South Dakota Snow Queen, and her 2022 memoir, Not My First Rodeo, is chock-full of folksy idioms and Bible verses; Noem’s political MO, she writes, citing Matthew’s Gospel, is to “be wise like snakes and gentle like doves.” The book also recounts her life’s biggest tragedy: When Noem was pregnant with her first child, her father was killed in a grain-bin accident, forcing her, she writes, to leave college and go home to run the farm. Noem ended up earning her college degree by taking online classes during her time in Congress.

Noem has always been adept at appealing to voters by using “the great mythology of America that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” Michael Card, a political-science professor at the University of South Dakota, told me. Those rural bona fides could be effective if she makes the Republican presidential ticket. But gender could work in her favor at least as much.

“Trump is well aware of his deficiencies as a candidate,” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark, told me. And his weakness among women voters—compounded by a penchant for baiting women he perceives as a challenge and the long list of sexual-harassment allegations against him—makes choosing a female running mate seem advisable. He’ll likely try to find “somebody who normalizes him somewhat,” Longwell said, and exploit “the excitement of a woman on the ticket, someone to push back on the idea that the party is sexist.” Bannon agreed: Trump’s MAGA movement is mostly woman-led, he claimed—“smart to engage that base and make your case to suburban women.”

Noem has downsides as a VP contender. It’s not as though Trump would need her on the ticket to win over rural voters; they already love him. Vice-presidential candidates can be chosen to deliver a state that might not be in the nominee’s column, but South Dakota is a safe Republican state, and, with only three Electoral College votes, it’s not a particularly useful pickup. And although Noem has yet to come under national scrutiny, she’s already had her share of controversy. In the spring of 2022, a Republican-controlled panel of South Dakota lawmakers found that one of Noem’s daughters had received special treatment in an application for her real-estate-appraiser license. (Noem has denied any wrongdoing.) And last fall, the New York Post and the Daily Mail ran reports about an alleged affair between Noem and Lewandowski. (In response, the governor’s spokesperson dismissed the allegation as “a false and inflammatory tabloid rumor.”)

Trump has other options. He could run on a ticket with his current primary opponent Nikki Haley, as a way to appease moderate Republicans. The pairing doesn’t seem particularly plausible right now, given the sharp words both candidates have had for each other during this campaign, but Bannon sees it as a possibility—even if he and others in MAGA world don’t approve. “Haley has two constituencies—the Murdochs and the donors—and they are trying to buy her way on the ticket as VP,” he told me.

As for Noem’s other potential rivals for a Trump VP pick, a lawmaker with Stefanik’s Ivy League credentials and political experience on the ticket could help Trump shore up support from moderates, some strategists said. “Elise could at least pass as somebody who eats with a fork in Washington circles but would satisfy the MAGA base,” Jeff Timmer, a Republican strategist and senior adviser at the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, told me. But Stefanik perhaps has to work harder to win over the MAGA crowd—she was dutifully parroting Trump’s lines on Meet the Press this weekend by referring to the convicted January 6 rioters as “hostages.” Aside from Lake, the former newscaster and failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate whom I profiled in 2022, other women who could get consideration include Senator Katie Britt of Alabama and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

If Trump has secured the nomination, the VP-selection process could look very different from the way it did eight years ago. Back then, Trump was still looking to consolidate support among Republicans; now his lock on the party is airtight, unquestionable. “He gets to pick whoever he wants,” Timmer said. Which makes competition for the spot pretty unpredictable: Trump could follow his gut and pick a MAGA-style politician and relative outsider like Noem, or make a more strategic choice with a GOP insider like Stefanik. Regardless of whether Republican leaders like either, “they’re gonna smile and go along with it.”

One thing is certain: No candidate will be considered for the Trump VP slot without having demonstrated sycophantic devotion to the former president—a willingness to defend him no matter what. Noem is not the only one to clear that bar, but she has jumped higher than most.

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