South Dakota governor fits the mold for Trump VP pick

Gun Rights

If AI were going to churn out a perfect female running mate for Donald Trump, it might very well be South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Noem styles herself as a tough, rangy, gun-loving ranch gal with beauty queen energy and ethical standards as loose as those of Trump himself.

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Noem gained national attention recently because after having launched a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign to draw workers to her state — featuring herself as a plumber, welder, state trooper, accountant and dental tech — she traveled to Texas when she needed dental services.

That might have gone unnoticed but for the wacky, five-minute infomercial-style video she cut praising the Houston-based cosmetic dentistry service that did the work. Noem posted the video to her social media accounts and is being sued by Travelers United for “failing to properly disclose a medical tourism advertisement.” The lawsuit alleges that Noem “advertised a product or service without disclosing that she has a financial relationship with that company,” and failed to let her followers know she was advertising on behalf of a brand.

In true Trumpian fashion, Noem has refused to answer basic questions about whether she was paid or received free dental work in exchange for the very professional-looking video.

Trump, who’s hawking $59.99 “God Bless the USA Bibles” when he’s not running for president or defending himself in court, might want to get some tips.

Noem has displayed other Trump-like tendencies. In 2022, she used a state plane to travel to a half-dozen political events outside South Dakota hosted by the likes of the National Rifle Association and Turning Point USA. Her use of state resources resulted in an ethics complaint and investigation. The complaint was ultimately dismissed because the state statute did not fully define what constituted state business.

That same year the South Dakota Government Accountability Board unanimously found that there was evidence Noem had committed malfeasance and engaged in a conflict of interest when she intervened to ensure her daughter would receive a real estate appraiser license.

Such controversies would ordinarily quash the chances of a prospective vice presidential candidate. But they might heighten Noem’s appeal to Trump’s supporters. They haven’t been deterred by their hero’s numerous indictments. And Trump is unlikely to employ conventional criteria in making his pick.

Unlike some of Trump’s other potential VP picks who must live down their previous criticisms of the former president, Noem has been an acolyte since Day One.

Attesting to her short-list status, Trump met privately with Noem at Mar-a-Lago in late February and showcased her at his recent rally in Ohio. Clad in a red MAGA hat to match Trump’s, Noem strode across the stage where Trump kissed her on the cheek and said, “We have a very special woman who’s hot as a politician.” In case anyone wondered about the “hot” reference, Trump elaborated, turning it into a whole bit. “You’re not allowed to say she’s beautiful, so I’m not going to say that. I will not say it, because that’s the end of your political career, if you make that statement … so I will not say that.”

It is well known that Trump likes to surround himself with people that he considers “straight out of central casting.” And Noem has undergone quite the glow-up in recent years. Gone is the mom-style shag haircut, modest makeup and sensible clothes that marked her earlier days as a member of the House of Representatives. The new teeth were just the latest addition. Trump also likes what he calls “killers,” and Noem’s strong executive style and don’t-back-down attitude are sure to score points with him.

Candidates choose running mates for all kinds of reasons: to balance a ticket geographically or tap a treasure trove of electoral votes that a key state can bring. Personal chemistry is a factor. Sometimes it’s to offset gaps. As a young senator, Barack Obama wanted an experienced Washington hand at his side and chose then-veteran Sen. Joe Biden.

Noem would bring distinct advantages to the ticket beyond gender balance. She has deep elective experience, having served in the South Dakota Legislature and U.S. House, where she rose to a leadership position. Because of Trump and Biden’s ages, voters may be looking more closely than usual at the position that is a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Noem broke barriers by becoming South Dakota’s first female governor and earned a second term in 2022, walloping her Democratic opponent by nearly 30 points. In doing so, she flipped 17 counties that had voted Democratic in a previous election. Trump always prefers doubling down to broadening his base, but in a tight race the ability to convert Democratic votes to Republican votes can’t be discounted.

But Noem also fiercely opposes abortion rights. Her state has one of the strictest bans in country, allowing an exception only to save the life of the pregnant female. Aiding in an abortion is a felony in South Dakota.

That could limit Noem’s appeal among suburban women and independents at a time when reproductive rights have become a powerful motivator for many voters. The latest example of that came last weel, when Democrat Marilyn Lands, running on abortion rights and IVF access, flipped an Alabama House seat. Trump appointed the pro-life justices who helped overturn Roe, but has turned squishy when it comes to a nationwide abortion ban.

If abortion becomes a big factor, Noem’s new smile might not be enough.

Patricia Lopez is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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