- Kristi Noem is taking the helm of the GOP culture wars and feeding 2024 speculation.
- She’s proposed bans on transgender women and girls from female sports and teachings on race.
- Her moves coincide with a primary gubernatorial campaign as she faces a more conservative opponent.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is at the frontlines of America’s culture wars.
A flurry of legislative proposals she put forward ahead of her “State of the State” address Tuesday touch on a familiar string of hot topics for Republicans: Banning transgender women and girls from female sports. Promoting prayer in schools. Banning the teaching of critical race theory. Blocking “action civics,” which may encourage engagement in the political process.
Those are issues Republicans have calculated will help them win coming elections, especially among conservative White voters.
Noem’s agenda comes as she faces a more conservative primary challenger in her re-election campaign this year – and speculation about 2024 presidential ambitions of this ally of former President Donald Trump.
“I think she is setting herself up to be a leading spokesperson on the culture wars,” said Michael Card, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota. “By introducing these bills, it helps her in the state. It helps her at least potentially gain a national audience, by her many appearances on Fox News, having her name be constantly mentioned as a potential presidential candidate or a vice presidential candidate.”
Noem, 50, a former member of Congress who was elected governor in 2018, is following the legislative lead of several GOP-led states that have banned transgender girls and women from sports and the teaching of critical race theory — the college-level study of racial bias in US laws that Democrats and education leaders say isn’t taught in K-12 schools.
Her emphasis on CRT has elicited fear among some higher education administrators in the state who worry they could be dismissed for political reasons. One professor, who asked not to be identified, said some university administrators have been avoiding the use of words such as “equity” and “systemic” in public statements.
Noem has been outspoken on the topic, and often says that she was the first candidate for public office in the country to sign a Trump-inspired pledge to promote “patriotic education.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference in July, she said all candidates should sign it, arguing “Marxist indoctrinations” taught in schools “will destroy this country.”
“The 1619 Project, critical race theory, is hate, division, and it’s not American,” she said of the New York Times Magazine’s project that reframes the country’s history with a focus on slavery and Black contributions. “It’s offensive. We do not have racism in our DNA in this country. We love each other, and everybody deserves to be treated equally.”
Her legislative proposal, which now has bill text before the state legislature, calls for blocking education that, among other things, causes individuals to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin.” Children also shouldn’t be taught that they are “responsible for the shortcomings of past generations and other members of our respective races,” she said in a statement.
The ACLU called her proposal “classroom censorship legislation,” but its inspiration doesn’t appear to come from a classroom in her state.
Wade Pogany, executive director of Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said there’s “no indication CRT is being taught in K-12 public schools” to his knowledge, but he added that the organization understands Noem’s concern. “Our position will be to continue to support the current process we have determining what should and should not be taught in South Dakota,” he wrote in an email.
Before her CRT proposal, Noem took “several concrete steps to defend South Dakota children from the false indoctrination of Critical Race Theory and associated ideologies,” her spokesman wrote in an email to Insider. She signed an executive order banning federal grants tied to critical race theory and worked with the state Board of Regents to prevent such teaching as the basis of education at state colleges and universities.
‘Raising issues that don’t exist in South Dakota’
Her latest legislative proposal to block action civics aims to prevent children from being forced to choose one political ideology over another or to protest or lobby as part of their education, she tweeted. “In South Dakota, we will focus on education, not indoctrination,” she added.
Adam Waldeck, whose 1776 Action group is behind the patriotic education pledge, said Noem is trying to “get ahead of the problem” in her state and following up on her pledge with action.
“If she is able to keep CRT and Action Civics out of SD schools and ensures that K-12 students are taught our history honestly, that will be very good for her politically as well…and I’d say the same for any other governor etc.,” Waldeck told Insider in an email.
Noem enjoys strong support among South Dakota voters, with approval of her performance across five topic areas from an average of 61.2% of respondents and 74.5% of Republicans, according to polling by Mason Dixon in late October. In May, her campaign registered a federal political action committee, Noem Victory Fund, which could be a sign of national ambitions.
She has become known nationally for her vigilance against vaccine and mask mandates during the COVID pandemic, and her decision to spend $5 million federal covid relief funds on a tourism ad campaign. She is also facing controversy over whether she intervened to help her daughter get a real estate appraiser license, which she denies.
Last year, Trump wanted Noem to mount a primary challenge against fellow Republican Sen. John Thune, who he attacked as a RINO — an acronym for Republican in name only— though she had already said she would run for re-election to her current job.
Now she’s in a primary against state Rep. Steve Haugaard, a former speaker of the House in the state legislature, who has attacked her conservative bona fides for partially vetoing an earlier version of legislation banning participation by transgender athletes. She said the version opened up the state to lawsuits and the National Collegiate Athletic Association withdrawing tournaments from the state. Her new legislation would codify executive orders she issued shortly after the partial veto.
“We’ve seen the news coverage about other states shutting down churches, punishing students and faculty for praying in school, or taking away fairness for women in athletic events,” she said in a lengthy statement. “That won’t happen here.”
Noem is raising issues that don’t exist in South Dakota, “except as she raises them,” Card said. She is shifting in this direction while facing a conservative candidate focused on these issues, he said, and will shift toward the center for the general election if she follows the typical election campaign.
Noem is “ambitious,” he said, adding that she has many attributes that might be valuable if she decides to run for a national office. Her pursuit of culture war legislation could help her politically, he said.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to elect a woman as president,” Card said. “And here’s an attractive woman who can speak with conservative credentials and talk about things that she’s done or tried to do. And I think that will help her with her national ambitions.”