How South Dakotans Really Feel About Kristi Noem

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty

Gov. Kristi Noem bet on herself and it paid off as she rose to the top of South Dakota politics.

Noem’s confidence has been a hallmark of her career, as she won two terms in the state House of Representatives, four in the U.S. Congress and two as governor. She never walked away from a fight, and often rode toward them aboard her horse or motorcycle.

And now that assured, combative nature has caused a possible career-ending blunder. Noem’s admission that she shot and killed a puppy and a goat—made in a soon-to-be released book—has made her the subject of derision and ridicule across the state, nation, and world. She has united Democrats and Republicans in rolling their eyes in amazement, and attacking her for her insensitivity and callous behavior.

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She’s got to wonder how it all happened. One minute, she was a potential running mate for former President Donald Trump, and the next she was reading multiple reports that her political career is likely over.

Noem grew up in a rural setting in Hamlin County in the northeast corner of the state. Her father, Ron Arnold, was a successful farmer who was very demanding, almost to the point of abuse. How do we know this? Noem wrote about it in a 2022 memoir, Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland.

Ron Arnold was a quick-tempered, combative man who died in a grain bin accident in 1994. He was “so funny. And a little crazy,” she said in an online tribute marking the 25th anniversary of his death.

In many ways, Noem has patterned herself after her dad and created an image as a rancher. She often wears blue jeans and a battered cap to public events, unless she has donned a cowboy hat when riding her horse, Ice Man.

See, while Noem is from the East River—South Dakotans divide the state by which side of the Missouri River you live on—she has adopted a West River cowboy style, more horses and hats than the caps and pickups of the farmers and small-town residents of the eastern half of the state.

South Dakota has long been a Republican state. The last time a Democrat was elected governor was 1974. But East River, the home of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Tom Daschle, has always been more bipartisan, with pockets of liberalism.

West River is redder than the back of a crew-cut cowboy’s neck after a long day in the saddle. It’s deeply conservative and staunchly Republican, and Noem has embraced that lifestyle and culture.

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That’s why she thought bragging about shooting Cricket, a 14-month-old puppy who failed at hunting and killed some chickens belonging to a neighbor, and knocking off a smelly, cranky goat to boot was a good story to share. It’s the kind of thing cowboys do, she must have thought.

But it really isn’t. That’s where Noem, and the inexperienced staffers who surround her, missed the point. Yes, farmers and ranchers put down—the polite euphemism for shooting—animals.

My dad did it on our farm, which was located about a half-hour from where Noem grew up. I have heard numerous such stories.

But they are told in hushed tones, with eyes cast down. No one brags about killing an animal, and some folks will tell you they cried when they did it, even if the animal was old and in misery. Kevin Woster, a longtime South Dakota journalist who is widely respected for his outdoors reporting and expertise, told the story well in the wake of Noem’s bizarre admission.

A photo including South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem

Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Noem somehow thought it was a good story to include in a book released as she angled for the vice presidency.

Her career is at a crossroads. She is barred from seeking a third consecutive term as governor. Republicans hold both Senate seats and the state’s lone congressional seat. Running with Trump, or serving in his cabinet if he wins, offered a political lifeline for her.

Now, her future is as cloudy as a spring day on the prairie.

Shane Merrill, a farmer and the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said this latest misstep was not very surprising.

“It’s hard to tell if this will have any effect on her political career, but it is basically more of the same, that we have seen since 2010,” Merrill told The Daily Beast. “Her time in elected office has been filled with bizarre happenings, distractions, and fabricated stories (particularly around election time). There’s no telling what these distractions have taken away from our state time and time again.”

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A longtime Republican insider who has little respect for Noem made it clear this was hardly a stunner.

“She’s really a terrible person; slowly since Trump won everyone realized how trashy and ambitious she is,” the South Dakota GOPer said.

The fact that she has told this story repeatedly over the years is proof of her lack of understanding how truly offensive it is, the insider said. Noem’s top aides have tried to stop her, but it’s been a regular feature.

After a few days of silence as her political image crashed down, Noem began to push back on Wednesday, telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the dreaded “fake news” was not telling the whole story. Maybe she misquoted herself in the book.

On Thursday morning, she again tried to label the 14-month-old puppy as a dangerous beast, and herself as a hero for shooting it.

“Don’t believe the #fakenews media’s twisted spin. I had a choice between the safety of my children and an animal who had a history of attacking people & killing livestock,” she said on X. “I chose my kids.”

We get it, governor. Cricket had it coming. The goat? Well, once you’ve shot one animal, it’s hard to stop.

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She is used to controversy, from pressuring a state employee to issue a license to her daughter, using state airplanes for questionable purposes, and repeated clashes with Native Americans, which has a long, tortured history of racial tensions and trouble.

Noem has been banned from four Native American reservations in the state, and she has battled Native Americans in recent years. Those are just some of the battles she has waged, with her close friend and advisor Corey Lewandowski encouraging her to seek conflict—and headlines.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, a second-term Republican who served two terms as governor, said he was puzzled why Noem chose to make this public.

“I don’t see how it helps,” Rounds told CNN. “I’ve had dogs. I just think that when a family decides to put down dogs, it’s a very personal and private decision to be made. Not something to be made lightly. It should be very personal and private.”

Rounds’ term is up in 2027, and there is widespread speculation that Noem may challenge him in a primary. Like her, Rounds is very public about his love of hunting—it’s mandatory for all South Dakota politicians to tramp around in a field in pursuit of pheasants in the fall of election years.

A statue of him in Pierre depicts him with a shotgun and a hunting dog, so he is sure to make this an issue if she runs against him.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, a Republican in his fourth term who campaigned side-by-side with Noem in 2010 when she defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and boosted her 2018 gubernatorial bid, chose to pass on the question.

A photo including Sen. John Thune (R-SD)

Sen. John Thune (R-SD)

Drew Angerer / Getty

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican running for his fourth term in Congress, was more sympathetic. Johnson, who has expressed interest in running for governor in 2026, said Noem was just doing what rural folks do.

That’s not true, of course, but that was his comment.

“Life is a little different in rural America… I know Kristi,” Johnson told CNN. “And clearly, she handled that, I think, with as much humanity for the animal as was needed… but I would tell you that Kristi Noem was not the first or the one thousandth, you know, farmer or rancher that’s put down an animal themselves.”

She is, however, the first one to write about it in a book that she hoped would propel her onto the national stage. Instead, it might send her back to Hamlin County, where there are lots of animals, guns, and gravel pits.

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