Gov. Kristi Noem, Senate leader team up to keep Republican 'wack-a-doodles' out of state Capitol

Governor Kristi Noem speaks with attendees ahead of a bill signing on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at First Premier Bank in Sioux Falls.
Governor Kristi Noem speaks with attendees ahead of a bill signing on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at First Premier Bank in Sioux Falls.
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Gov. Kristi Noem is taking a more active role in this year's primary election season, including trading barbs with incumbent lawmakers not in lock-step with her wing of the South Dakota GOP.

And that has some of her fellow Republicans accusing her and her allies of trying to rid the Legislature of its most conservative members.

The first-term governor who's facing a re-election of her own in the June 7 primary told the Argus Leader in an exclusive interview last week that she's not relying as heavily during this campaign cycle on handlers, consultants or other advisors who in the past have guided her through an election.

More: The start of early voting in South Dakota is marked with Republican in-fighting

"I'm much more hands on during this campaign," Noem said. "I'm making many more of the decisions myself, proofing everything, deciding scheduling, where I'm going and how we're operating the campaign."

Gov. Kristi Noem, University of Sioux Falls President Brett Bradfield and Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, chat before a bill signing ceremony in Sioux Falls on Thursday, March 18.
Gov. Kristi Noem, University of Sioux Falls President Brett Bradfield and Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, chat before a bill signing ceremony in Sioux Falls on Thursday, March 18.

Not seen as vulnerable in her primary, Noem says she's still not taking her party's nomination for governor for granted. But she is managing to find time to involve herself in some battleground legislative contests. She's offered candidate school seminars to up-and-coming politicians, making endorsements and even going as far as publicly chastising Republican incumbents she doesn't see eye to eye with on topics.

Last month, for instance, Noem joined District 4 House candidate Stephanie Sauder on a radio program where she openly accused Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, of being a poor legislator doing damage to South Dakota's way of life.

Sauder is challenging Deutsch in next month's election.

Schoenbeck: Noem 'greatest asset we have' in primaries

The remarks about the incumbent in that race, made on KXLG in Watertown on April 21, prompted Deutsch, who's butted heads with the governor on transgender, taxation and COVID-19 vaccination policy, to rescind an earlier endorsement of the governor.

And though she won't say specifically which other aspiring state lawmakers she's putting her political weight behind, it's known that Noem is working in tandem with a high-ranking senator who's investing thousands in campaign funds to unseat far-right members of the party seeking re-election.

More: Ethics board will bring in independent attorney to help navigate complaints against Noem

"In the primary, she's probably the greatest asset we have," said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the president pro tempore of the Legislature's higher chamber who's engaging in open hostilities with a handful of the governor's political nemesis.

Lee Schoenbeck
Lee Schoenbeck

In the days following the candidate filing deadline for state House and Senate, Schoenbeck began distributing a list of candidates preferred by him and the South Dakota political establishment.

The Watertown Republican told the Argus Leader on Wednesday that the list, which names every Republican candidate for Legislature in a primary contest and denotes Schoenbeck-backed candidates with highlights, was crafted with input from "at least 100" others across the state.

He declined to say exactly who else offered input into the list. But highlighted on it are dozens of Noem allies looking to unseat incumbents, such as Sauder, District 25 Republican Lisa Rave and Rep. Tim Goodwin, who's challenging Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller for her District 30 Senate seat.

And though both he and the governor's camp deny she had any involvement, its clear there's synergy between the two.

"Our oars are rowing in the same directions," said Schoenbeck, who was instrumental in helping the governor carry her agenda through the Legislative process.

All that has combined to put a target on his back, too. Schoenbeck last month began sending post cards, through a political action committee he controls, to voters in the districts of incumbents not on his list of preferred candidates. The mailers accused those being targeted of supporting a bill that would have allowed counites to implement a sales tax.

Since then, the anti-establishment faction, which he characterizes as "wack-a-doodles," has pushed back.

Schoenbeck's Republican critics call him the 'liberal leader of the Senate'

House members like House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham and Reps. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, and Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, have issued public statements calling into question Schoenbeck's standing as a conservative. Pischke launched a campaign ad accusing him of being the "liberal leader of the Senate." And last week, Rep. Liz May, a Republican who lives hundreds of miles from Watertown, began running a billboard spot in Schoenbeck's district pegging him as a "tax and spend" politician for helping Noem block a sales tax cut last winter.

In a phone call Wednesday, May said she's historically had good relations with Schoenbeck, but after seeing her friends and colleagues attacked for what she described as staying true to conservative principles, she's decided to "go all in" against the more moderate wing of the party.

And that starts with Schoenbeck, who May called "the king cobra."

"I'm going to do what it takes to expose him and this cabal of Republicans," she said, though she declined to share the level of campaign funds she intends to focus on Schoenbeck's race.

Schoenbeck has also balked at inquires seeking the amount his PAC, South Dakota Strong, has spent targeting primary contests for Legislative offices.

Ian Fury, communication's director in the governor's office, declined to comment, saying it wouldn't be inappropriate for a member of Noem's official staff to respond to questions involving the campaign.

Noem's campaign spokesman, Chris Hupke did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Political action committees and legislative candidates are required to report primary-related campaign contributions and expenses by May 23.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Kristi Noem, Lee Schoenbeck team up to defeat far-right candidates