PIERRE, S.D. -- Yes, Kristi Noem is a woman, but she can do the heavy lifting herself.
As she paid for horse feed during a December trip to Runnings, Noem chatted with the cashier who was visibly pregnant, asking how she felt and if she had thought of a name for her baby yet.
But when the cashier asked if Noem needed help loading her bags of feed, South Dakota's governor-elect was already out the door, yelling, “Nope, I’ve got it!” with a wave. She threw the bags into the bed of her red pickup -- still emblazoned with a Kristi for Governor sticker -- and then it was back to work at the Capitol.
After eight years in Washington, D.C., Noem, 47, is returning to her home state, where she will be inaugurated as South Dakota's first female governor on Jan. 5.
She didn't always expect to take political office. But while searching the aisles of Runnings, Noem said in an interview that her family was "rocked" in 1994 when her father died in a farming accident on their ranch.
Noem was 22-years-old and attending Northern State University at the time. She decided to leave school to return home and take on the role of general manager of the ranch: a role she said she didn’t see other women around her in at the time, but one that she knew she would be best at out of her family members.
Shortly after her father’s death, Noem said her family took a second blow when they had to pay estate taxes on her father’s land and equipment. It’s a story Noem has repeated time and time again on the campaign trail and in office, calling for less federal government intervention and lower taxes. Her claims have been disputed, to which she penned a response in a 2017 op-ed to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Noem said it was the aftermath of her father’s death that inspired her to step from the fields into public office.
“I realized we needed more people showing up at meetings talking about the real effects of policy on businesses and on families,” she said.
She started off local, attending municipal government meetings then joining agricultural boards, and climbed over the years: First, to the state House in 2006, where she served for four years and became assistant majority leader. Then, another leap to Congress in 2010, when she clinched her party’s nomination in a hotly contested primary and general election, ultimately snagging South Dakota’s lone seat in the House from Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin by a 48-46 percent vote.
Though she wasn’t beholden to term limits by law as a congressperson, Noem vowed when she was elected in 2010 that she would only stay in Washington for four terms. So when her self-imposed deadline began to loom and Daugaard’s (mandated) term limit approached, Noem mulled over the idea of returning to South Dakota to become the state’s chief executive.
Her narrow 51-48 win on Nov. 5 was historic: 100 years after South Dakota voted to allow women the right to vote, they voted for their first female governor. But Noem didn’t make a show of that during her campaign.
Even in an election year dubbed “the pink wave,” which saw unprecedented female candidates and elections nationwide, only one campaign ad for Noem noted her gender -- and it was paid for by the state’s Republican party, not by her campaign.
The move was intentional. Noem and her colleagues will tell you that she was adamant throughout her campaign that she wanted to be elected for her merit, not for her gender.
But just because she didn’t emphasize her status as the potential first female governor during her campaign doesn’t mean she takes for granted the historic nature of her election.
“It is very special to be the first woman governor and the more people have mentioned it now to me, it’s pretty humbling,” Noem said.
Deborah Walsh, the director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), said that the one of the important things about Noem’s election is that “she disrupts the image of what a governor can look like,” and has the power to inspire young people to run for office who may not look like the status quo.
According to data from the CAWP, 44 women have served as governor in 30 states, including those that will be sworn in this year.
Noem said she considers herself to be pro-women, but that there aren’t “women’s issues;" instead, there are women’s perspectives on all issues, she said. In an interview prior to her election, Noem said she would make it a priority to give more South Dakota women a seat at the table, saying that they bring a different perspective to government.
“It’s a voice that has to be there if we’re going to have better policy,” she said in December.
So far, Noem has appointed the state’s first female Secretary of Agriculture Kim Vanneman, who will oversee the state’s largest industry. Six of her cabinet picks are female, and 10 out of her 17 full-time staffers are women.
It’s a trend that Walsh said is common when women take office: “Women often bring new faces into government with them…. It opens up world of possibilities.”
Aside from her campaign platforms, Noem and her transition team have been coy about their policy plans as she prepares to assume office. But Noem remains a firm conservative and said she will stick to her “morals” as governor.
Socially, that means being pro-life, pro-second amendment and anti-gay marriage. She has consistently received 100 percent scores from National Right to Life, and accepted $5,000 in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association’s PAC during her gubernatorial campaign.
Noem’s conservative views and alignment with the far right are no secret. At a September campaign event, couples could pay $5,000 for a photo with President Donald Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared at a rally for Noem the day prior to her Nov. 6 election.
Years ago, in 2010, The Washington Post dubbed Noem “the next Sarah Palin,” no doubt referring to her conservative views but unwittingly also drawing the parallel between two first female governors in their respective states years before it came to fruition.
Former Democratic legislator Bernie Hunhoff was the state House minority leader while Noem was assistant majority leader, and despite their dramatically opposite political leanings, Hunhoff said he was able to work in a bipartisan manner with Noem.
“She’s obviously always good with media and she’s the best at delivering all the conservative talking points,” Hunhoff said. “You’d think, ‘Wow I’m not going to be able to compromise with her.’ But usually when we would sit down at a table, I found her to be moderate person just trying like everyone else to find a middle ground to solve problems.”
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S. worked with Noem years ago in Pierre while she was a legislator and he served on the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and again recently as he has transitioned into her former role as South Dakota’s at-large representative. What Johnson said he finds impressive about Noem is “how much empathy she can have, but never be pushed around.”
“She has a political courage. She has a steel that I think great leaders need to have,” he said. “She is not afraid of bold things. She wants to be a change agent. She doesn’t settle for the status quo and in that way, she’s a disrupter.”