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Candidates for South Dakota Governor and the debate controversies

On July 15, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced she wouldn’t participate in a debate sponsored by South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB). Her campaign spokesman claimed that SDPB has an “extreme leftward swing,” alluding to the belief that the organization cannot be impartial in the debate.

In a break from precedent, the Republican governor has agreed to just one debate with her challenger, Jamie Smith, a two-term Democratic South Dakota State Representative from Sioux Falls.

Noem is running for reelection after a first term that gave her national prominence among Republicans for her primarily hands-off approach to COVID-19 restrictions. She has become a polarizing figure in the heavily-Republican state, and Smith is trying to challenge her for seeming to have political ambitions beyond South Dakota.

In positioning herself for a 2024 White House bid, Noem follows a nationwide trend of (primarily Republican) candidates abandoning time-honored traditions of debating their rivals before Election Day. Noem’s messaging around the snub repeated Conservative talking points that the media ecosystem is elitist and cast Noem in the mold of former President Donald Trump.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for Noem’s campaign, said in a statement Friday, “In the past, Governor Noem has made clear that she will not participate in debates hosted by hyper-partisan organizations or outlets. SDPB has repeatedly promoted the radical effort to re-write American history and cancel our Founding Fathers.” 

Noem also released a letter to Smith, saying, “Voters deserve the opportunity to hear from the two of us on a wide variety of issues, especially those on which we do not see eye to eye. I look forward to a spirited, fact-driven conversation, and I trust that you hope for the same.”

Rep. Smith said, “This is just another example of her trying to push the narrative in a hyper-partisan manner. Here again, she’s choosing not to debate on a platform that the South Dakota people have come to trust, and that’s a detriment to the people of South Dakota.”

He has also stated he will debate Gov. Noem whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. “I think that’s just sad for the people of South Dakota. We would welcome more debates, of course, and would like to get our message out to more people and allow voters to make informed decisions,” Smith said Wednesday night.

Smith has been focusing on Noem’s frequent absence from the state. On July 13, he noted he was talking with hundreds of South Dakotans in a Sioux Falls park while Noem issued her “challenge” from Palo Alto, California. Smith said, “Kristi Noem can find time to speak at a panel in California or fly on the state plane to New York, but when it comes time for a debate in South Dakota, all we get is an empty chair.”

Instead, Smith says he will “focus on South Dakota” and work to serve as a model for how a true leader acts, like a decent, caring human being. He said he would ensure LGBTQ people are made to feel welcome and included, as hate has no place in the South Dakota he knows.

Smith has talked with constituents, many women and men, who are angry about the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. He believes such decisions should be between a woman, her family, and her doctor — and government should stay out.

Smith said that South Dakota’s first citizens, its Native American residents, have been put last for far too long. He vowed to follow the path forged by Gov. George Mickelson, a Republican, who offered a hand in friendship and pledged reconciliation between all people in the state.

Noem’s campaign did not respond to a request for further comment last week.

The solitary debate will be co-hosted by Dakota News Now and KOTA/KEVN on September 30 in Rapid City. Libertarian Party candidate Tracey Quint will also take part. 

Quint, a political newcomer, knows this is her best opportunity to introduce herself to South Dakota voters. She is an outreach coordinator at a Sioux Falls nonprofit organization. Quint’s running mate is Ashley Strand, a nurse’s aide from Rapid City.

“Thank you to Dakota News Now, KOTA, and KEVN for allowing me this opportunity,” Quint said on the campaign Facebook page. “Voters deserve to hear from all of the candidates listed on their ballot, and I look forward to a professional, civil debate.”

Notably, when Dennis Daugaard and M. Michael Rounds were incumbent governors, they debated their Democratic opponents on public television, a fact in conflict with Noem’s assertion that she is following past governors’ precedent. 

On Friday, SDPB released a statement that it would still proceed with “fair, in-depth candidate debates and interviews” but place an empty chair where Noem would have sat.

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