While COVID-19 burns through South Dakota at record rates, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is rarely in the state. Instead, she's traveling the United States to campaign and raise money.

She's also selling pithy T-shirts on her web site that downplay the pandemic — "Less COVID More Hunting" they read — even as her home state battles a record number of hospitalizations because of the virus.

Noem really wants to run for president in 2024, it appears, and nothing is going to stop her from pursuing that goal. Not even a deadly pandemic that she's basically ignored with an attitude that mirrors that of COVID-denying President Donald Trump.

Noem, a rising star in national Republican politics, has turned her back on South Dakota.

Meantime, mayors in the state's largest cities are begging citizens to take steps that will arrest the spread of the virus.

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Where's Kristi?

Pretty much anywhere but South Dakota.

A list compiled by Forum News Service South Dakota news director Jeremy Fugleberg shows Noem traveling to at least nine states on 12 occasions over the past two months. And those are just the out-of-state trips the public knows about. There might be more.

Noem has been to:

  • Pennsylvania
  • Iowa
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota (twice)
  • Texas (twice)
  • Florida (twice)
  • New Hampshire
  • Wisconsin

She's made the trips to campaign and fundraise for Trump, while also fundraising for herself and other candidates.

A Sioux Falls Argus Leader report Tuesday, Oct. 20, said Noem had raised more than $850,000 between May 17 and Oct. 14, more than six times what she raised in the first four months of the year. The newspaper reported Noem received donations from 41 states and Washington, D.C.

In other words, Noem has used the crushing pandemic to raise money and inflate her national brand.

She is as cynical and opportunistic as a politician could be, shirking her responsibilities as governor as she's seen a political door swing open because of a pandemic that's killed 323 South Dakotans and 220,000 Americans.

When South Dakotans are looking for leadership, Noem is campaigning for Trump while laying the groundwork for her own presidential campaign for an election that is four years away.

Noem doesn't see COVID as a crisis, only a brand-building opportunity. She has, from the beginning, dismissed the pandemic as a nothingburger. She's followed the Trump playbook, and therefore the Republican playbook, line for line. With her T-shirt sales, Noem is even cashing in on the denial.

Even as virus numbers swell and hundreds remain hospitalized.

There are swing states to be visited, donors to be glad-handed, photo opportunities to be shot.

She might get one chance at being the Republican nominee for president and, with the combination of Trump and her do-nothing coronavirus response gaining her conservative bona fides, that chance has come. If it's still four years away, so be it. Noem isn't about to pass it up.

That means there's another plane to catch, even as the COVID crisis blows up on her watch.

Noem can't run for president if she's stuck in South Dakota.