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Image: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls on June 22, 2020.Stephen Groves / AP file

South Dakota's Noem scrambles to defend pandemic failures

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) wants to put a positive spin on her state's experiences with the pandemic. It's not going especially well.


South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is acting like someone who's eager to run for a different job. Shortly before Election Day, the Republican governor was in New Hampshire. Shortly after Election Day, Noem was in Texas, and this past weekend, she was in Georgia, hoping to help her party's U.S. Senate candidates.

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls noted this week that the first-term governor -- and former congresswoman -- has made "dozens of out-of-state outings" in recent months.

There is, however, a rather dramatic problem likely to interfere with Noem's national ambitions: South Dakota has suffered brutally with the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it's been one of the worst places on the planet for COVID-19, and the Republican governor's response has provided a model of what not to do.

Given that it's difficult to parlay failure into a bid for national office, Noem has begun trying to put a positive spin on South Dakota's tragedy. Just this week, the governor wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, effectively boasting about her state's rejection of "harsh rules," "lockdowns, and "mask mandates." She added:

Many in the media have criticized this approach, labeling me ill-informed, reckless and even a "denier." Some have asserted that South Dakota is "as bad as it gets anywhere in the world" when it comes to Covid-19 -- a demonstrably false statement.

The trouble is, it's really not a demonstrably false statement. A Washington Post analysis explained this week:

Data from the Federation of American Scientists in mid-November showed South Dakota's per capita death rate was the third-highest of any hot spot worldwide in its data set. And Washington Post data show South Dakota has by far the highest per capita death rate in the country — 18.7 deaths per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

The New York Times' tally found the same result: per capita, South Dakota's COVID-19 fatality totals are the worst in the United States.

Noem's op-ed proceeded to try to draw favorable comparisons between her state and others, prompting the Post's analysis to add, "You can cherry-pick data to tell pretty much any story you want. But focusing on momentary increases (which are happening pretty much everywhere, to some degree or another) and ignoring South Dakota's even worse increases and the overall picture of the past two-plus months is really to miss the forest for the trees."

Something to keep in mind as the governor engages in out-of-state travel and prepares to ask for a promotion.

Postscript: The New York Times also reported yesterday on South Dakota state Sen. Helene Duhamel, who tested positive this week, just two days after attending a dinner with the governor. The artcile added, "Governor Noem has fiercely resisted imposing a mask mandate or any other restrictions throughout the pandemic, even as the coronavirus raged through the state in the fall, overwhelming its hospitals. The governor’s office insisted that she had not had close contact with Ms. Duhamel, even though they were photographed standing only a few feet apart."