Among Kristi Noem's problems is her inability to define herself since the primary. She could have been a Tea Party star. With one or two clever policy initiatives, she could have defined herself as a more serious, less erratic Sarah Palin.
But sometime this summer (oh, say, when she hired R. Blake Curd's last-place campaign manager), Noem lost her nerve. She coasted on primary bounce and forgot that she's still the challenger against a smart incumbent. The moment the August debates started, Noem let Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin push her to the defensive on one major policy initiative Noem had supported, Congressman Paul Ryan's bold budget proposal, which included privatization of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Noem backpedaled hard and has sounded scared of policy specifics since. Heck, now she can't even answer a simple question about her pick for Speaker of the House without checking with her handlers.
She has also inched away from her Tea Party base. She declines to attend the Ted Nugent Second Amendment rally organized by South Dakota Citizens for Liberty, the Rapid City Tea Party group that's been rooting hard for Noem. Skipping Nugent's nuttery in favor of a pheasant fundraiser for sick family on the other side of the state is clearly a reasonable choice, but Noem has also backed out of a Rapid City debate with Herseth Sandlin on KOTA television. Noem has thus bailed on two opportunities for high-profile exposure among West River conservatives who can help her with electoral energy and money.
Thus declining to embrace Tea Party iconhood or any definite policies beyond publicity stunts that don't gain traction, Noem is stuck with definitions of herself that she doesn't want. Of all the tags the national media could put next to her name (straight-shooting rancher, ethics reform crusader, challenger to Sarah Palin for Tea Party supremacy), the first and maybe only thing the national press mentions is Noem's "extensive record of driving violations." She gets tied conceptually to the Tea Party as a fellow hypocrite in railing against big government but personally taking over $3 million in farm subsidies (a story we've been having fun with here in South Dakota since March).
Noem still has a better chance to beat Herseth Sandlin than the last two Republicans who tried to take our House seat. But feckless campaigning has kept Noem from emerging as a Republican super-trooper. She's just a nice lady saying nice things and hoping she can hang on until November.
Bonus Noem Blooper: Independent House candidate B. Thomas Marking gets an invite to a Noem fundraiser in Custer. "I can’t decide," says B-Thom, "whether this represents the abject ignorance of her supporters or the supreme arrogance of this political party and their candidate."
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