Portrait | The cowgirl leading the Trump Veep stakes


Portrait | The cowgirl leading the Trump Veep stakes

Who is the South Dakota governor whose name often comes up as the Republicans' most likely vice-presidential candidate? By WILLEM KEMPEN.

EXPERIENCE or political leadership is usually of lesser importance when it comes to choosing a US vice presidential candidate. It's more important that the future VP can somehow make up for Number One's weaknesses or help persuade a group of voters who might otherwise vote for another candidate.

All of this was true of Donald Trump's VP choice in 2016, but this time there's also another consideration: blind loyalty. This is because Trump might well have to count on his vice president for a pardon, should he lose one or more of his many criminal cases while serving his second term. His popularity with Republican voters also means he doesn't need to pick someone like Nikki Haley from a rival faction to unite the party around him; and he doesn't want to make another mistake like he did with Mike Pence, who ended up “betraying" him at a critical moment.

Kristi Noem might just be the kind of candidate Trump is looking for. She became known nationally as a Trump loyalist when, during the Covid epidemic, she sided with him against lockdown measures, mask-wearing and later mandatory vaccinations.

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She has long had her eye on the Veep position and might well have deliberately chosen not to take on Trump like Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy did in the nomination race. This has three advantages for her and her ambitions: she didn't have to say anything negative about Trump on a public platform, she didn't have to suffer humiliating defeats against him, and consequently it's harder to question her loyalty to him.

Noem was elected as South Dakota's first female governor in 2018 after representing the state in Congress for nearly a decade. While she was known in the House of Representatives as a quiet backbencher, her politics as governor shifted to the right.

She likes to project what The New York Times called a “rugged Great Plainswoman image": everywhere where you look it's horseback riding on the open plains, flannel shirts and cowboy boots, family values and huntin' an' shootin', as in this promotional video:

Her best-selling autobiography of 2022 was titled Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland. A bit like Sarah Palin with a Stetson and a slightly less annoying personality, if you will.

Noem's politics aren't much different from Trump's: she's a proponent of smaller government and tighter fiscal control; she is vehemently opposed to abortion; she is an enthusiastic supporter of the National Rifle Association and equally keen to prevent stricter gun control (“I may be a mom and a grandma, but I am the NRA."). In each case, she frequently tried to pass legislation on those issues in her home state. The same goes for her opposition to same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights.

She initially echoed Trump's claim that there was widespread fraud in 2020's election but was later more subdued about the issue. A year earlier, she had campaigned fiercely against Trump's trade wars with China and Europe, which she labelled as “devastating" for South Dakota's predominantly agriculture-based economy.

Noem also shares Trump's opinions on immigration and border control with Mexico, something that angered South Dakota's Sioux and other tribes earlier this year. The president of the Oglala Sioux, a man with the beautiful name Frank Star Comes Out, said Noem's remarks about a link between immigration from the south and crime in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were “opportunistic and dangerous" and that, as a result, she was no longer welcome on tribal land. (Look here for more about South Dakota’s tribes.)

And, Star Comes Out said, Noem exploits the situation at the border to win Donald Trump's favour — and to improve her chances of becoming the US's next vice president.

He's probably not wrong.

♦ VWB ♦

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