While Noem never ordered businesses to close, many did so anyway. And city leaders, frustrated with Noem’s inaction, issued their own orders that forced many to shutter for weeks in the spring.
As the response to the virus became increasingly politicized, however, Noem moved to the forefront of governors railing against government orders. By June of 2020, her message had shifted: “More freedom, not more government is the answer.”
With an eye on the economic and mental health ripple effects of the pandemic, she frequently touted the fact that her state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and a growing economy.
But even as virus cases and deaths surged last year, she refused to urge people to wear masks in public. Instead, the state spent more in federal coronavirus funds on an ad campaign inviting tourists to visit than it did on public health advertising.
As her appearances on Fox News increased, conservatives across the country began suggesting she run for president. Noem has demurred when asked publicly about her White House ambitions and says she is focused on next year’s gubernatorial campaign. But recent actions — from registering a federal political action committee to hitting the nationwide speaking circuit — show she has her sights set beyond South Dakota.
It’s not clear how her record on the virus would play beyond the Republican base. South Dakota recorded the nation’s 10th highest COVID-19 death rate. Although some states with far more aggressive approaches to mitigating the pandemic saw similar outcomes, South Dakota had the worst mortality rate in the Midwest. But that hasn’t stopped Noem from bragging about it.