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Hold on to your hat for a wild ride in governor’s race

A screenshot of Democratic candidate for governor Jamie Smith's ad, which features two men watching Gov. Kristi Noem's ad on television.
Smith for Governor
A screenshot of Democratic candidate for governor Jamie Smith's ad, which features two men watching Gov. Kristi Noem's ad on television.

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

A friend and I have agreed to disagree on Gov. Kristi Noem’s “saddle up” ad.

He thinks it’s a pack of lies with a pretty backdrop. I think it’s a good campaign ad, with a great backdrop and some exaggerations and misleading moments.

Also some pretty good riding, in my poorly informed opinion. But then, a buckaroo I’m not.

I am someone who has a relatively well-informed understanding of what makes effective campaign ads. But then, so is my friend. We just disagree on this one.

We do agree on a couple of attack ads that Democrat Jamie Smith is running against Noem, using the saddle-up ad for material. They’re both pretty good. More on them in a minute.

More, too, on a sharper-edged attack ad by Noem against Smith, which includes the statement that “Jamie Smith would be the most anti-Second Amendment governor in the country.”

Wow. That’s gotta be saying something, right?

Smith does have an F rating from the NRA. So do about 90 percent of all the Democratic governors in the United States. Could it be possible that a governor in California or New York or Illinois might be more anti-NRA than Smith would be?

And what did Smith do so wrong by NRA standards? According to Noem’s attack ad, he co-sponsored a red-flag-law bill in the state Legislature, which went nowhere, as you’d expect in our state Legislature.

What’s so horrible about red-flag laws? Well, they give the courts more authority to remove firearms from people determined by the courts to be threats to themselves or others.

So, taking guns from dangerous people. Talk about crazy stuff, huh?

A compelling ad that isn’t quite the whole truth

But back to the Noem saddle-up ad. It features video of Noem on horseback — I assume that’s her favorite horse, Ice Man — galloping across gorgeous green grasslands, often with what appear to be rolling river breaks in the background.

It’s mixed with “working” shots of Noem at a business or in school or during a news conference on COVID-19 issues.

It’s an effective mix. And when the horseback scenes are on, Noem’s voice tells the story of a father who taught his daughter to “get back on that horse and ride” when life throws you.

It would be hard to get thrown much harder than Noem was thrown when her dad, Ron Arnold, died in a farm accident. She was 22, married to her sweetheart Bryon Noem and eight months pregnant with their first child.

Noem left college and came home to take over where her father left off.

“I lost my hero. And we nearly lost our livelihood,” Noem’s voice says overlaying the effective visuals. “Through grit and God’s grace, we kept going. And our ranch was saved.”

The timing of “our ranch was saved” and the beautiful visuals leave the impression that she was riding on the one that was saved. She wasn’t. I don’t know where she was, but it wasn’t on the Noem place near Castlewood.

I’ve been there. The Noems have an attractive, modern home on a fetching old farmstead with a nice, East-River-type pasture nearby. Good grass in that pasture when I was there for a profile on Noem late in 2010. But nothing there said “ranch” to me. She used to call it a farm, and sometimes a ranch, but lately has settled on ranch.

I guess it fits better with the image she wants to project these days.

What I can tell you for sure is there’s nothing around Noem’s place like the sweeping grasslands in the ad. I’d like to know where it was filmed. So I sent an email to Noem’s campaign staff. I received the same response that I got earlier when I sent the campaign an email asking who made the ad. None.

I’m beginning to think outreaches from me to the campaign this cycle will be underappreciated.

It had more to do with the will than the tax

But back to the ad and the main “lie” that my friend complains about (I know, I know, that’s ending a sentence with a preposition, but apparently that’s not as egregious as it once was.): The idea that the Noem family “nearly lost our livelihood,” as the ad says, after her father’s death is certainly disputable.

During her years in Congress, Noem used the tragedy as an example of how the inheritance tax could harm farm families and others. She has said on a number of occasions that the inheritance tax, which she preferred to call the “death tax,” threatened the survival of the Arnold-Noem family farming operation.

In truth, the main threat came through a failure to update her dad’s will.

A number of reporters in the state and beyond looked at that issue, discussing it with tax experts and estate-planning professionals. Their conclusion was that the tax posed an additional difficulty at a difficult time, but was hardly one that threatened the family operation.

One of the reporters who wrote about this issue is Christopher Vondracek. His story for Courthouse News Service, which was referred to me by SDPB reporter Seth Tupper, was perhaps the most thorough and understandable that I saw. And it formed the basis for my understanding of the issue.

When Ron Arnold died in 1994, he had an estate worth more than $2 million, primarily in land, livestock and grain supplies. But like most farmers, especially younger ones, he also had debt on most of that estate. And because he hadn’t updated his will, his family faced $169,000 in federal taxes, money that didn’t need to be owed to Uncle Sam.

Had the right update been made to Arnold’s will after 1981 changes to the law that provided surviving spouses with a tax exemption, the estate could have passed on to Arnold’s wife Corrine, without any tax liability.

Instead, the family did have to deal with that $169,000 in owed federal taxes. But it didn’t hurt that Arnold had a life-insurance package that paid his wife $1.2 million. So even with existing debt and the new tax burden, they had plenty of options that didn’t have to include selling land to pay off the taxes.

It certainly made things more complicated. And they had to work harder to get right with the federal government. But it’s unlikely the family livelihood was ever seriously jeopardized.

So I’d call what Noem says in the ad a clear exaggeration, a distortion of reality that’s not uncommon in campaign ads. Noem also plays with reality by saying that with her leadership South Dakota has the No. 1 economy in the nation.

Yeah, well, you can find a study that indicates that. You can find others that rank South Dakota a lot lower.

My friend is sticking with “lie” on the ad.

Smith response ad gives clues to campaign plan

My friend and I do agree on state Rep. Jamie Smith’s ad in response to Noem’s “saddle up” ad. We both think it’s a pretty good attack ad, that uses the saddle-up ad as a basis for the attack.

The ad shows a couple of apparent good ol’ boys — the younger variety — bellied up to a bar and watching the saddle-up ad on a TV set above and behind the bar.

Their back and forth goes like this:

“Where’s she galloping off to this time?

“Probably some national news show.

“I thought she took our fancy new jet.

“Probably does, but she doesn’t tell us nothing.

“Riding alone. Doesn’t she have any friends?

“Her staff keeps quitting.

“Maybe she should just hire another family member.”

They chuckle as the video transitions to Smith in a sports coat and standing in an office, chuckling himself as he says:

“Isn’t it time for a governor who puts you ahead of her career, a governor you can trust to stay home and get stuff done. Accountable. Transparent. I’m Jamie Smith. Let’s focus on South Dakota.”

In a similar ad with the same two guys and same video of Noem, the exchange goes:

“She ain’t really galloping for governor.

“Why’d you say that?

“Fox News says she’s running ads all over the country.

“Like where?

“Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina.

“South Carolina? Why would she do that?

“She’s running for national office.

“She don’t care much for South Dakota.”

Then it’s back to the same office with Smith, who says:

"What about us? it’s time we have a governor who will pledge to focus on South Dakota. A governor we can trust to stay home and get stuff done. I’m Jamie Smith. Let’s Focus on South Dakota.”

Running for governor while eyeing national office

It’s a relatively mild-mannered attack, as campaign-attack ads go. But it focuses on issues certain to be raised again by Smith and his supporters: Noem’s extensive travel out of state for political events unrelated to South Dakota; her frequent appearance on national conservative media outlets; alleged abuses in the use of a newly purchased state airplane; and the employment for a time of one of her daughters in the governors’ office.

You can also expect to see criticism for Noem’s undermining of marijuana-legalization measures that voters approved and, perhaps especially, the results of a legislative investigation that concluded that Noem’s other daughter got special treatment two years ago when she was applying for a state appraiser’s license.

Noem denies that she did anything improper in those areas. And has been generally denying for more than a year that she has ambitions for national office — president, vice president, a cabinet position.

But lately she told one news outlet that she wouldn’t rule it out. And much of what she says and does, and where she goes to do it, is consistent with a potential candidate trying to build name ID and find favor with Republican primary voters across the nation.

So far, polling indicates that she hasn’t had much success in that area. Or, as the same friend who called her saddle-up ad a lie puts it, “The gallop ad is pretty and I think works well to introduce her in her ‘presidential campaign,’ where she and I are tied in the polls.”

He’s joking. He’s not in the polls, of course. And she does show up in them from time to time, but with insignificant rankings so far.

Anyway, you can expect to see that issue exploited by Smith and tougher ads from his campaign during the three months between now and the November general election.

And I guarantee you we’ll see tougher ads from Noem. She seems to enjoy waging full-scale war on her opponents, especially if there’s any chance at all that they could beat her.

Much-tougher odds than Kneip faced in ‘70s

Smith has a chance of beating Noem. It’s a much-better chance than Lloyd Christmas has of capturing Mary Swanson’s heart (one in a million) in the movie "Dumb and Dumber." But it’s not a chance you’d want to bet your house on.

Remember, the 51-year-old Smith was 3 years old the last time South Dakota elected a Democratic governor, when incumbent Dick Kneip beat GOP challenger John Olson in 1974. Only Billie Sutton in 2018 and Lars Herseth in 1986 have really come close to their Republican opponents.

I sold Noem short once in 2010, when she joined the congressional race late and with near zero in campaign funds or a campaign structure. All she did in a matter of months was beat better-known Republican primary opponents and then defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in the general election.

I haven’t sold Noem short since. These days she has a lot of money, a steely ability to stay on message and a lot of Republican voters, as in a 140,000 edge over Democrats in registered voters.

Dick Kneip and other Democrats never had to face such overwhelming GOP dominance back in the 1970s. Then Democrats were comparable to Republicans in registered voters. In 1978, Democrats even had more.

Not so today. Not anything like it.

So why bother? The bother matters. It matters a lot. Because win or lose, Noem, like any other incumbent, needs to be held accountable for her record and actions and statements in the way only tough campaigns by credible opponents can do.

Make no mistake, Jamie Smith is a credible candidate. And with a little luck and some decent campaign cash, I’d expect him to break 40 percent. Can he do better? Maybe.

I recently spoke to an old — meaning about my age — South Dakota Republican with street smarts and political savvy who said Smith could hit 45 percent.

“That’s just because a lot of people don’t like Noem," the guy said.

You have to quantify “a lot” of course. In 2018, 172,912 South Dakota voters liked Noem well enough to elect her as the state’s first woman governor. That year 161,454 preferred her opponent, Democrat Billie Sutton.

And 4,848 chose Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans.

With three months to go, the tough stuff is coming

In percentages, Billie Sutton took just shy of 48 percent of the vote to 51 percent for Noem and slightly more than 1 percent for Evans.

It was a nice enough win for Noem, but not a great showing. Republican candidates for governor usually do better. Usually a lot better.

For comparison, Noem’s very popular predecessor in the governor’s chair, Dennis Daugaard, beat Democrat Susan Wismer in 2014 with 70.5 percent of the vote to Wismer’s 25.4 percent, with independent Mike Meyer taking 4.1 percent. That race was a bit of an outlier.

But in 2010, Daugaard beat Democrat Scott Heidepriem, a tough candidate who ran a smart, aggressive campaign, 61.5 percent to 38.5 percent.

Prior to that, current U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds won his first term as South Dakota governor in 2002, beating Democrat Jim Abbott 56.8 percent to 41.9 percent. Independent James Carlson took 0.7 percent and Libertarian Nathan Barton 0.6 percent.

In 2006, Rounds had an easier time of it, beating Democrat Jack Billion 61.7 percent to 36.1 percent, while Constitution Party candidate Steve Willis got 1.2 percent and Libertarian Tom Gerber got 1 percent.

Breaking 40 percent in a governor’s race has become a hallmark of respectability for Democrats in South Dakota. Hit 45 percent and the race is competitive.

Noem has plenty of money for advertising and polling. And if polling shows anything in that 40-to-45 percent range for Smith, her messaging will likely get especially nasty.

And that won’t be nearly as pretty as that beautiful green backdrop in Noem’s saddle-up ad, wherever it was shot.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.