Kristi Noem is trying to thread two political needles.
She’s desperate to create chatter about a presidential run, while also not angering Donald Trump and excluding herself from his short-list of vice presidential candidates. She’s also trying to do some of Trump’s dirty work by attacking Ron DeSantis, while also not directly attacking the Florida governor and setting off a war with his camp.
On Wednesday, Noem managed to do it all, delivering a speech at the pro-Trump think tank America First Policy Institute that generated the chatter she craves while also subtly taking shots at DeSantis without using his name.
Noem’s main line of attack against DeSantis was contrasting their different responses to COVID-19.
“I did not lock my people down or mandate anything. In fact, we were the only state in the country that never once ordered a single business or church to close,” Noem said at one point during the private event, where Trump alumni Brooke Rollins and Hogan Gidley sat front and center. “In fact, I didn’t even define what an essential business was or nonessential business was.”
In April 2020, DeSantis “issued a statewide stay-at-home order” amid the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, which he said was in consultation with then-President Trump at the time. The Florida governor would later define what essential services were, something now deemed a mortal sin by right-wing media.
“Because I don’t believe that governors have the authority to tell you that your business isn’t essential,” Noem said during her address.
Without uttering his name, the South Dakota governor took one more jab at DeSantis when she said her state attracts freedom-loving Americans without the promise of palm trees and sunshine.
“Today, our population is growing at five times the national average, now remember South Dakota does not have beaches and we do not have beautiful Januarys to use to recruit people to our state,” she said.
At the end of her speech—which largely focused on China “threatening” the way of life in America—Noem said the state of Florida was “watching South Dakota to see how we lead” when it came to prohibiting China-backed entities from buying up farmland in their state.
As the race for the White House in 2024 has gotten underway on the Republican side of the ticket, Noem’s camp hasn’t been afraid of attacking DeSantis. The Daily Beast previously noted that Noem press secretary Ian Fury wrote a blistering email to the conservative-leaning publication National Review, where he accused the Florida governor of “hiding behind a 15-week ban” on the issue of abortion.
The Daily Beast also reported mid-January that the South Dakota governor is on Trump’s vice-president short-list, which also includes Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).
But Noem’s address Wednesday in D.C. was one of the clearest signs yet that the South Dakota governor has ambitions beyond the Mount Rushmore State. Fox News reported earlier this month that Noem is slated to give two additional speeches this week while in Washington, D.C., including one at the libertarian think-tank The Cato Institute.
Noem entered Congress two years before DeSantis was elected, but left around the same time as him, when both were elected governor of their respective states in 2018. Since then, Noem won re-election as the state’s executive in 2022, securing over 60 percent of the vote in the general election.
“When other states saw that our example was working, they unwound their lockdowns. They declared themselves open for business, too,” she said Wednesday. “How long would it have taken our nation to recover from this pandemic if we had not had South Dakota’s example?”