In Kristi Noem’s South Dakota, Freedom Rings

Spend any time in South Dakota and what strikes you most is that the place still works. At a time when so many American cities seem like backdrops for the next Hollywood dystopian thriller, life amid the amber waves of grain feels like utopia, a remnant of a country that once was. With 63 parks and recreation areas to explore, it’s no surprise that Forbes included the state on their recent best travel destinations list.

South Dakota’s natural beauty from the Black Hills and Badlands (the geologic wonder that Teddy Roosevelt once referred to as inspiring the romance of his life) to the sweeping prairies, holds some of the country’s most divergent landscapes.

Along with the state’s wild attractions and famous monuments, its economy is thriving. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the state ranked in the top five for growth in gross domestic product and personal income during the first quarter of 2023. The state’s real GDP also rose a whopping 10.1 percent and personal income went up 9.2 percent. Additionally, South Dakota recently broke the record for lowest unemployment rate, registering just 1.8 percent in June—roughly half the national average.

It was hard not to notice that the state’s second-term Governor, Kristi Noem (R), even helped launch a national workforce recruitment campaign last month to attract more workers and businesses to the state with the lure of no state income taxes, low cost of living, and a public education system that delivers some of the country’s highest SAT scores. Is it any wonder a national survey ranked South Dakota America’s happiest state? As pitch people go, it didn’t hurt that Noem looks like she stepped off the cover of Town & Country, which helps make her an earned-media machine. Some 3,500 applicants had already responded to the ad campaign by late July.

A key part of Noem’s success in South Dakota can be attributed to her skepticism of Covid lockdowns from the beginning. She refused to shut down the state’s businesses or order a statewide mask mandate despite widespread pressure—a decision that increasingly looks like a bold and visionary move. Instead, she was adamant that South Dakota residents make their own decisions about what is best for their families.

For Noem, it’s all about freedom and that’s a theme that she continues to champion in the state and nationally. She’s a fixture on conservative news outlets and, when you listen to her speak, you wonder why she hasn’t entered the Presidential sweepstakes. As state chief executives go, few have a more compelling narrative to bring to the debate stage.

Before her tenure as Governor, Noem represented South Dakota in Congress and served on the influential House Committee on Ways and Means, as well as Judiciary, Education and the Workforce, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources Committees—conservation in the Roosevelt tradition remains one of her well-known passions. Come pheasant season, you’ll see Noem on the range with shotgun enjoying what fellow South Dakota native Tom Brokaw describes as a “religious holiday” in the state. Noem is now championing a statewide habitat effort to benefit all manner of wildlife including her beloved pheasants that draw hundreds of millions of dollars from visiting out of state hunters each year.

Her authentic rural roots and communications skills helped her win reelection for Governor by a historic margin—roughly doubling the vote total of her opponent. Today, she remains one of the country’s most revered governors with an approval rating surpassing 60 percent.

She also uses her ever-growing national media bully pulpit to take positions on issues of national concern. She recently called for an end to Chinese farmland investments in her state and was the first to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok app from use on all state-issued devices. Several other states soon followed suit with growing concern that the social platform is used by the Chinese government to manipulate Americans.

The Governor also recently sent South Dakota National Guard to the Texas border to bolster that state’s efforts to slow the flow of fentanyl and human trafficking that has impacted her state as well as the rest of the nation. Some 100,000 Americans die each year from mostly Chinese made fentanyl, and Noem isn’t bashful about reminding Americans about what she sees as the Biden Administration’s failures there and elsewhere.

What the future holds for Noem remains the subject of much speculation—especially as former President Trump makes plans to visit the state and the Governor he previously endorsed—but it’s clear that South Dakota is likely to continue serving as a model for what works in America as long as Noem has her way.

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