After reading my criticism yesterday of Republican gubernatorial candidate Steven Haugaard’s failure to capitalize on the Noem luxury-rugs-and-sauna story, a friend wrote, with a fiendish and dare-I-speculate establishment-backing grin, that maybe I’d “have to come to terms with the possibility that he’s just not a great candidate.”
I can’t speak for my friend, but I may have to take back my harsh assessment that Haugaard, like other South Dakota right-wing insurgents before him, is too immersed in right-wing gobbledygook to throw political punches that will land with anyone other than National Review readers. At 8:49 this morning, Team Haugaard dropped this missive in my inbox and that of other reporters:
The Argus Leader released a report on November 29 detailing Governor Kristi Noem’s use of $68,000 taxpayer dollars to redecorate the South Dakota Governor’s Residence. This includes a sauna that cost more than $8,100 and $13,000 in rugs—including one rug that cost $4,000 alone.
Steve Haugaard, Republican candidate for governor, had this to say in response: “Governor Noem seems to have a pattern of spending taxpayer dollars on personal expenses. First, she spent $130,000 on a TV studio and high-priced makeup kit for her regular national TV appearances. Then, she spent $492,000 on a security fence around her residence. Perhaps we should be grateful that the sauna only cost $8,100.”
The cost of installing the sauna was not even included in the accounting documents obtained by the watchdog group that requested them.
Haugaard continued, “Governor Noem is no fiscal conservative. From her personal spending to her ill-advised taxpayer-funded media campaigns, everything is meant to boost her own image and appease the many lobbyists who haunt the hallways of the people’s House in Pierre. My campaign is focused on transparency, genuine leadership, and putting South Dakotans first” [Steve Haugaard for Governor, press release, 2021.12.02].
Haugaard took my suggestion that he razz the Governor for her home-decorating excesses and did us two better. First, after pointing unapologetically to the facts reported in the local press about Noem’s expensive rugs, sauna, and other redecorating, he tied this news to a pattern of selfish spending. Haugaard reminds us all of the $130K video studio Noem bought to satisfy her preference for live spots on Fox News rather than sit-downs with the South Dakota press. Haugaard even picks up on my 2019 headline teasing Noem for including a TV-quality make-up kit in the contract (glad to help, Steve!). He adds the expensive fence Noem erected to secure her vanity at the mansion. And with more wit than I thought the dour fundamentalist had in him, Haugaard turns that pattern of vain spending into a clever closing line: “Perhaps we should be grateful that the sauna only cost $8,100.”
He then goes beyond Noem’s well-steamed vanity and ties the sauna report to another of his campaign points, the need for greater transparency. We can only assume that when Haugaard enters the Governor’s mansion, he will itemize all of his redecorations (black velvet paintings of Western Jesus on every wall, reconfiguration of the sauna into a confessional?).
Haugaard accompanies his press release with a little social media push, retweeting for his 193 campaign followers both the original November 29 Joe Sneve story breaking Noem’s luxury mansion purchases and the SDSU Collegian editorial board’s swift and adept assessment of the rich hypocrisy among Noem and her GOP excusers:
This isn’t the first time Noem has used state money for her own projects. In September 2020, Noem spent $5 million of COVID-19 relief funds on a tourism advertisement.
Multiple times now, the South Dakota people were deprived of funding that could have been used for COVID-19 response, improving essential employees’ salaries or public assistance programs.
What’s really rich is the backlash Vice President Kamala Harris has received from republicans after buying some fancy cookware for Thanksgiving. Harris purchased a $375 serving dish with her own money and the official republican party Twitter account claimed she was out of touch with the economic turmoil Americans are currently going through.
Where is the same criticism given to Noem when she spends South Dakota’s money on lavish accessories to a home she doesn’t even own? [editorial board, “Issue: Noem’s New Mansion at Expense of Our Taxes,” SDUS Collegian, 2021.11.30].
That quick and critical editorial from South Dakota’s biggest university newspaper demonstrates the cross-partisan/non-partisan effectiveness of Noem’s lavish spending as a campaign issue. Sure, one could argue that Haugaard only needs to talk to the Republican primary base for the next six months, but if an issue can get through as effectively to liberal-leaning college students as to the frugal senior citizens still likely to make up the largest segment of primary voters, why not swing for that fence?
And in a suggestion that he recognizes that everything can be connected, Haugaard’s next tweet after the Collegian push is an appeal to college students and young Republicans to join his campaign and “help us put South Dakota first!”
Meanwhile, Noem’s campaign Twitter has been silent since Turkey Day. She must be putting in extra time in the sauna, trying to relax while her advisors come up with better spin for the selfish luxury lifestyle that Haugaard is right to target as a campaign issue. Well done, Steve.