By STEPHEN GROVES
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.
All three Republican incumbents running for reelection to a statewide office — Noem, U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson — held off primary challengers running to their right. Primary voters also soundly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it more difficult to pass citizen-initiated ballot measures that raise taxes or spend significant public funds.
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.
In her speech at an election night party, Noem didn’t even mention her Democratic gubernatorial challenger’s name. Instead, she told the crowd, “we’re going to have the chance to go into a November election and make sure we’re pushing back on Joe Biden’s America.”
She then led them in booing and jeering the president’s policies as she drove a comparison between Biden and former President Donald Trump, whose attention she has courted.
“Today, I’m on defense,” she said. “Every time I turn around I’m fighting off Joe Biden and the damage he’s doing to the state of South Dakota.”
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.
Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, also won his primary against two challengers who joined the race after Thune drew Trump’s ire. 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 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.
The senator alluded to his prominence in Washington in a statement celebrating the primary win, saying he would “continue putting South Dakota’s interests on the national agenda” and labeling 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 Johnson defeated state lawmaker Taffy Howard in the Republican primary for the state’s lone House spot. The $300,000 Howard’s campaign raised was 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.
“It will not be deception and New Jersey attacks that carry the day,” Johnson said, referring to a political action committee called Drain The Swamp that spent $500,000 opposing Johnson. “It will be truth and South Dakota hard work.”
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 showed some momentum behind the more extreme wing of the Republican Party 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 defeated an amendment to the state constitution, proposed by Republican lawmakers, that would have placed 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.