Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Noem outperforms expectations; Smith earns respect for honorable campaign

Another sign of success for Kristi Noem
Kevin Woster
Another sign of success for Kristi Noem

Well, I dd it again. I underestimated Kristi Noem.

You’d think I’d know better by now. I’ve had 12 years to do that.

Know better, I mean.

Maybe you remember that 2010 campaign. I sure do. It was the first time I underestimated Noem. She came in late and underfunded to beat two better-known GOP candidates — Secretary of State Chris Nelson and state Rep. Blake Curd — in the U.S. House primary. I didn’t expect her to win.

Then she went on to beat incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who had seemed in previous campaign cycles to be nearly impervious to defeat. I didn’t expect Noem to win, again.

After that, I promised myself I’d never underestimate her.

So I wasn’t surprised when Noem won three more U.S. House elections with relative ease, before winning a tough Republican primary for governor against Attorney General Marty Jackley in 2018. Nor was I especially surprised when she beat state Sen. Billie Sutton, the most promising Democratic candidate since Herseth Sandlin, in a closely contested general election.

Then came this year, when my resolve to never underestimate Noem slipped, just a bit.

It’s not that I didn’t think she’d beat Jamie Smith. Of course, I did. I just didn’t think she’d beat him 62 percent to 35 percent.

Apparently not that many Republicans were sick of her after all

And looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t think that. I guess I paid too much attention to the Republicans who said they were sick of her. They were clearly a small minority of voters.

Maybe I paid too much attention to my own disregard for the Trumpish style she has shown as governor, and underestimated the majority of the voting public’s affection for it.

And maybe, once again, I just simply underestimated someone you shouldn’t underestimate.

An upset win by Smith was never in the cards. But that’s not something you want to say while the campaign is under way. So I didn’t. It would have been unkind and unfair.

I wrote sometime earlier in the race that I thought Smith was a 40-percent candidate. I thought maybe he could even get a bit higher than that. I didn’t think he’d get 48 percent, as Billie Sutton did against Noem four years ago. But 40 percent seemed like a reasonable expectation for Smith, and maybe even a floor of sorts.

As for Noem, I didn’t think she’s hit 60 percent. High mid-to-high 50s seemed more likely.

My expectations for Smithseemed all the more reasonable when an SDSU poll in early October showed 45 percent of those surveyed preferred Noem, compared to 41 percent for Smith. Fourteen percent said they were undecided.

The 41 percent for Smith seemed to make sense, to me at least. The 45 percent for Noem seemed low. Hard to imagine. The 14 percent who said they were undecided seemed high, either indicating that a lot of voters really were still undecided or that there was some problem in the poll.

Not any manipulation or insidious tinkering, mind you. Just some problem.

Polls are at best snapshots in time during a campaign. And the snapshot by the SDSU poll was intriguing for campaign watchers like me and exciting for Smith and his supporters. It was also out of line with the results of Republican polling being done on the race.

How polling and logic fit into a campaign

To say nothing of what seemed logical in this strongly Republican state.

A poll for Keloland News later in October was more in line with what the Republican polls were showing. KELO had Noem at 56 percent and Smith at 37 percent. That poll also included Libertarian Tracey Quint, who got 3 percent, which she ended up getting in the election. Only 4 percent were undecided in the poll.

I thought at the time and still think the SDSU poll was credible work done by credible people. But it certainly is looking more like an outlier, for whatever reason.

Polling takes you only so far. Then it’s up to voters and voter turnout. And also campaign ads.

It’s possible that Noem’s barrage of negative ads against Smith following the SDSU poll reshaped a race that was closer before the ads. But you have to look back and think it was never as close as the SDSU poll indicated.

It certainly wasn’t at the end. Some of that was just the reality of Smith’s almost-impossible climb against a better funded, better known candidate with a pretty ruthless campaign streak and a statewide edge in registered voters of 140,000.

Or course, some of those registered Republicans are Democrats or independents who registered Republican to vote in the GOP primary. The vast majority, though, are pretty regular Republicans to one degree or another, and most are going to vote Republican come November.

So most of the undecideds — whatever the actual percentage — likely broke for Noem in the closing two weeks of the race, when she poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into local TV buys attacking Smith as a liberal extremist. He isn’t, of course. But the ads were strong. Distorted, but strong. Probably effective.

Sure it was a thumping, but one to be proud of nonetheless

There were few Smith ads on the air in response in the last week, as the underfunded campaign tried to compete, but really couldn’t. The Noem ads were an unrelenting stream. A dominating stream.

Blunt-instrument campaign messaging works. And added to the other advantages Noem had, including her own tough campaign style and a state voting population that has been turning a deeper and deeper shade of red, we had something close to a blowout.

A Noem supporter wrote on Twitter not long before Election Day that the final results would be an embarrassment for Smith. I disagreed on Twitter and I disagree here. There is nothing embarrassing about making the commitment to a campaign that has a slim chance of success but is nonetheless essential to our system of government.

In fact, it’s an act of courage and patriotism that should be applauded.

It’s important that voters have choices. And it’s important that incumbents be challenged by credible opposing-party candidates. Smith was credible. And he challenged Noem in an honorable, thoughtful and generally civilized way.

He can and should feel good about that, even as the sting from the loss lingers.

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