If you’re wondering how to replace Kristi Noem as Governor in 2022, perhaps Oklahoma provides a campaign template: get a high-ranking Republican to switch parties and run against the incumbent as a Democrat.
Oklahoma’s State Superintendent, their elected version of our Secretary of Education, Joy Hofmeister has switched parties from GOP to Dem to challenge incumbent Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt. Her recitation of grievances against her governor sound like complaints reasonable Republicans in South Dakota could lodge against Kristi Noem:
“Gov. Stitt is running the state into the ground,” said Hofmeister. “Through extremism, partisanship, ineffective leadership, he is hurting our education system, our health care, our infrastructure.
“And unfortunately, Gov. Stitt has hijacked the Republican Party in Oklahoma.”
…“We have a global pandemic, and it mattered who was governor in 2020,” said Hofmeister. “We’ve had 10,000 Oklahomans lost. When you understand now how critical it was to have had a leader who contemplated expert advice and opinion and set an example to help protect Oklahomans, we could have avoided thousands of people dying.”
…“The policy was that if you ignore reality, somehow it will go away — when leadership mattered in reducing spread. With that strategy, Oklahomans bore the brunt of COVID in their own lives.”
…Hofmeister said the state lacks a plan for long-term investments and stability for some of the most important, foundational functions of government here, including public education, health care and rural infrastructure, such as broadband.
“I’m seeing these things erode and relationships are broken, and it all begins at the top,” she said. “Oklahomans don’t like partisanship or pitting neighbor against neighbor, family against family.”
…“We need to respect and listen to the input, the perspective and the priorities of the tribal governments within Oklahoma. From the beginning, I have worked to understand that, to listen and to be a collaborator toward the common good of all Oklahomans,” she said before adding: “I will not betray the trust that I have personally established with our tribal nations” [Andrea Eger and Randy Krehbiel, “Joy Hofmeister to Flip Parties, Challenge Kevin Stitt for Governor in 2022,” Tulsa World, 2021.10.07].
Extremism, partisanship, ineffective leadership, ignoring reality, breaking relationships… throw in nepotism and travel, and you have all the material you need to knock Kristi Noem out of office with any sane electorate.
But would any South Dakota Republican risk leaving the good-old-boys club, even for one campaign season? Would Marty Jackley, Dennis Daugaard, or Shantel Krebs even consider bearing the ignominy of running around South Dakota with a “D” around their necks? And would a Republican ship-jumper be able to convince South Dakota Democrats to put Troy Heinert or Billie Sutton on pause and accept a candidate whom they have fought for years as their nominee?
Would a Republican who wants to challenge Noem even have to leave the SDGOP? There may be enough dissatisfaction with Noem within the SDGOP that a smart Republican could simply mount a primary challenge and beat Noem in June. 44% of SDGOP primary voters picked Jackley over Noem in 2018; I’m betting almost all of that 44% would cast another not-Noem vote in 2022 if given a candidate of Jackley’s stature (i.e., not some corny Mugwump legislator… but maybe Lee Schoenbeck, who would be fun as heck on the campaign trail). At least another 20% may be looking at Noem’s focus on coast-to-coast campaigning, suffering buyer’s remorse, and just itching for a chance to atone for saddling South Dakota with this camera-hog-on-pony show. And a big chunk of those Republicans willing to vote against Kristi in the primary would not do so in a general election in which Kristi wears the R and the challenger wears the D. For the empirical example, see 2018, when the Democrats ran a candidate who could have qualified as a conservative Republican but who still couldn’t persuade enough Republicans to commit the mortal sin of putting their mark next to the D.
A similar dynamic could play out in campaign finance. There are all sorts of national Republican players paying attention to Kristi Noem right now. Many of them view Noem as a threat to their preferred GOP 2024 Presidential nominee. They recognize that they could wait until 2023 and 2024 and spend tens of millions of dollars to beat Noem in a long nationwide campaign, or they could spend ones of millions of dollars in a lightning campaign against Noem on her own shaky home turf in the spring of 2022. If Marty Jackley put himself on the GOP primary ballot for Governor, he’d have million-dollar checks from national conservative anti-Noem PACs by Friday. With Jackley in particular, those national conservatives would have the chance to replace Noem with a reliable, competent, and perhaps best of all, quiet conservative who would never think of running for President and upsetting their 2024 plans for DeSantis, Haley, or whomever. Run Jackley or another Republican on the Democratic ticket, and a lot of that national conservative financial support disappears: even more so than South Dakota voters, those national conservative donors will invest in beating Noem, but not at the price of handing a governor’s chair to a Democrat, even a recently rechristened nominal Democrat.
Oklahoma’s Hofmeister shows that some Republicans can recognize when their governor’s extreme partisanship is damaging their state and demands bold change. Whether any South Dakota Republicans can be so bold remains to be seen.