Gov. Kristi Noem is the new star at the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Noem rode both a horse and a motorcycle at the Rally on Monday, helping sell an oil painting of her for $55,000 in a charity auction. Staff says this was Noem's first time at the massive western South Dakota biker bash.
STURGIS, S.D. — Call it South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's victory lap.
On Monday, Aug. 9, the conservative firebrand auctioned off "True Grit," an oil painting showing the governor on a horse during Custer State Park’s annual Buffalo Roundup.
The charity auction in Deadwood, South Dakota, was in the heart of roaring Harley-Davidsons and the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Next, Noem rode 50 miles on a denim blue Indian motorcycle into Vanocker Canyon and eventually out onto the plains of the Buffalo Chip campground.
"South Dakota is getting recognition that it's never got before," said Rod Woodruff, owner of the Chip, seated in a tent next to Noem in her signature baseball cap Monday. "And it's a direct result of the respect this governor has for the freedom and liberties of the citizens."
The governor followed up on her nostalgic vision of Sturgis.
"They can come here and remember what America feels like," Noem said.
Had there been a crowd, they would've revved their hogs.
The Black Hills, the most conservative corner of this red state, wasn't always unabashed Noem's country. In the 2018 primary, Noem blew past then-Attorney General Marty Jackley with a statewide 14 points victory, but Jackley, a Sturgis native, bested Noem in his home, Meade County.
Five months later, in the general election, Noem — who grew up on a crop-and-cattle farm in the far northeast corner of South Dakota, more Minnesota than Custer — squeaked by another West River politician, this one the former rodeo champion, Billie Sutton, a Democrat from Burke.
Even through the first half of her gubernatorial tenure, the former four-term congresswoman's polling was low across the state. But that all changed during COVID-19.
"She's normal South Dakota, and that's what the rest of the world is missing," said R. Victor Alexander, who runs the Three Forks C-store and campground outside Hill City, where a "Trump won" flag waves in the wind.
Alexander says he believes Noem's opposition to mask mandates pressured the local school board to oppose mask requirements, as well, something he approves of. He also supports what he calls her "tourism policy" and "the fact that we did not necessarily shut down."
"I'm supportive of what she's done and what she will do," he concluded.
It's the "will do" that is keeping people guessing. Noem has notched national TV spots, and traveled to fundraisers in Wyoming, Texas, and Florida. She's given speeches in Iowa and Minnesota and campaigned last fall in New Hampshire .
These are the places one would go if they were running for president, not South Dakota governor. But, so far, Noem insists she has her eyes on a 2022 gubernatorial campaign, not the White House.
But if Noem does look to pivot toward a more Trumpian brand, she could do worse than take a trip down Vanocker Canyon or attend a charity auction in Deadwood, where Noem T-shirts now hang in stores.
A Noem staffer said this was Noem's first time participating in the Rally, noting that the governor used to ride a motorcycle prior to starting her family (her three children are now grown), and recently picked up the motorcycle again.
And at least by mid-August, the ride is smooth for Noem. Pierre isn't in session till next year. Democrats still lack a challenger. And the state just purchased the plane Noem requested and legislators approved.
Sure, there have been bumps.
Her Department of Education has come under fire for overriding teacher-drafted social studies standards, removing multiple references to Lakota and Dakota history and culture. A billboard went up in Rapid City sniping at her for opposing a voter-approved recreational marijuana amendment. And health experts anticipate a spike locally in the delta variant, which could draw further scrutiny of her hands-off approach to public health.
But appearing at a motorcycle rally, even one dominated by mostly older white people, where political incorrectness is as popular as riding without a helmet, could be a battleground state in her own backyard.
"It's been a strong rally," said City of Sturgis spokeswoman Christina Steele, though not as much as the 1 million attendees predicted by Woodruff. Still, along with RVs, Harleys, spending money, and maybe a virus, political disenfranchisement has also seeped into the rally's mountain towns.
On Wednesday, Aug. 11, across from a billboard of the presidential wax museum featuring a smiling Joe Biden, Jay Perkins smoked a cigarette outside the store he runs. His T-shirt said, "We the People are pissed."
"That's what I used to think," Perkins said. "But now I blame us."
Perkins said he "quit" news media after this election, and isn't vaccinated, repeating skepticism about the safety of the vaccine. When two masked people walked into his store, he explained that some people who live outside South Dakota "believe all that stuff."
Health officials are concerned this week the crowds — estimates of 750,000 — could send a spike in the delta variant around the region, with the state sitting just above 50% of its population totally vaccinated. But Perkins thinks the media focuses too much on the "drama."
"What about all the charity events [during the Rally]?" he asks.
Artist David Uhl's painting of Noem, for example, fetched $55,000 for a human trafficking non-\profit based in the Hills. Noem has even offered to fly down to Texas to install the painting in the winning Texas couple's home (the couple did not respond to an interview request, though they told a local paper they "like" Noem).
On Wednesday, the crowds moved west across the Wyoming border into Hulett for a one-day rally.
"Topless Wednesday in Hulett," said Steele, later clarifying the rowdy town's annual "Ham N Jam" event in the shadow of Devil's Tower. "It gets quiet around here, relatively."
Smoke moved in overnight from a wildfire in Montana, and news broke late in the day about a growing wildfire southwest of Sturgis, not far from the road Noem took days earlier.
But at the Gold Dust Casino in Deadwood, a man working painter Uhl's booth — astride another painting of "True Grit," plus a few more that resembled Noem — chatted about people "renting sight unseen" in the Black Hills.
Uhl's usual stuff is biker propaganda. A longhaired rider cruising in front of Bear Butte. A gal bending near her motorcycle with a rattlesnake snarling at her while she points her pistol toward a distant cliff.
And now in the casino's window, there's an array of framed Noem paintings on display, capturing the photogenic governor — or a close look-alike — in heroic poses, buttoning an old-school leather helmet or riding her horse amongst the bison, as tourists from around the country walked past, snapping pictures.