WASHINGTON (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem endorsed former President Donald Trump at a party fundraiser in Rapid City Friday night that doubled as an opportunity for Noem to showcase herself as a potential vice presidential pick.
As his rivals held town halls and meet-and-greets in early voting states, Trump headlined the South Dakota Republican Party's “Monumental Leaders Rally” in Rapid City, where Noem, once considered a potential 2024 candidate in her own right, instead threw her support behind the former president.
“I will do everything I can to help him win and save this country," Noem said as she formally offered her endorsement before Trump took the stage. She said all the other Republican presidential candidates had been invited to the event. “All of them told us that they had better things to do. But when President Trump was invited to come be with you tonight, he said, ‘I will be there,’” she said.
Trump, for his part, praised Noem as “one of the most successful governors in the entire nation” and said her endorsement “means a lot.”
Trump's decision to headline the event underscores his dominance in the early stages of the GOP presidential primary even as he faces four separate indictments and 91 felony counts. South Dakota holds a late primary and isn't a competitive general election state. But with a huge lead, Trump is skipping much of the traditional primary campaign.
Instead of the large-scale rallies that dominated his past runs, he is this time relying on state party events that offer large, friendly audiences at no cost to his political organization, which is facing millions of dollars in legal expenses. Friday's event looked like a typical Trump rally, but was paid for by the state Republican Party. Those in the audience purchased tickets and paid to attend.
The visit was also something of an audition for Noem. She planned the event as a way to both offer her endorsement and maximize face time with Trump as he considers potential 2024 running mates and cabinet members, according to two senior Republicans familiar with her thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.
Noem will be term-limited in 2026 and, after declining to run for president this year, is eyeing her next move to maintain prominence in the GOP.
Allies had hoped her appearance alongside Trump would create an image that looked like a potential presidential ticket. And they seemed to get what they desired: Several people sitting behind Trump held "Trump-Noem 2024" signs and, at one point, their names appeared together on a screen behind the stage at The Monument ice arena, captured in a photo by an NBC reporter.
Voting won't begin until next year and Trump's historic indictments and upcoming criminal trials create an unprecedented situation that many strategists argue could influence the race in unexpected ways. That hasn't stopped those who are keen to be considered as Trump's running mate from openly jockeying for the position and trying to curry favor with him and his aides.
Aides caution it is far too early for serious discussions. But Trump has indicated in conversations that he is interested in selecting a woman this time around. Others whose names have been floated include New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Florida Rep. Byron Donalds and two of Trump's current rivals, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, have also been mentioned.
"What we’re focused on is just locking up this primary and pivoting towards the general election,” said campaign spokesman Steven Cheung.
Trump has spent far less time campaigning in early-voting states than most of his rivals. But he will return to Iowa, the first state on the GOP nomination calendar, on Saturday to attend the college football game between Iowa and Iowa State.
Noem was long considered a potential White House contender in her own right and had told The New York Times in November that she didn't believe Trump offered "the best chance" for the party in 2024. But she has since said she saw no point in joining the crowded field running for the nomination given Trump's dominant position.
"Well the fact is, none of 'em can win as long as Trump's in the race. And that's just the facts. So why run if you can't win?" she said in an interview with Fox News in August.
Asked this week whether she would consider joining a potential Trump ticket if invited, Noem told Newsmax she “would in a heartbeat.”
“President Trump needs a strong partner if he’s going to take back the White House, and he’s going to need somebody who knows what it’s like to run a business, to be an employee, earn a paycheck, but also having a wife, mom and a grandma isn’t bad either,” she said.
Michael Card, a longtime observer of South Dakota politics, suggested Noem might make a future National Rifle Association president or conservative commentator, but said her best opportunity may lie with Trump.
“I think Donald Trump has a 50-50 shot of getting elected at this point, so why not hitch your wagon to him if you can?” he said.
The visit was Trump’s first to South Dakota since the summer of 2020, when he headlined a fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day. The then-president had been looking for a venue to turn the page after a summer of pandemic lockdowns and racial justice protests, and Noem’s event at Mount Rushmore was notably devoid of pandemic restrictions.
She also gifted him a miniature replica of Mount Rushmore with his likeness carved alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
A former member of Congress, Noem rose to national prominence with a mostly hands-off approach to the pandemic. Trump has often praised that approach, cheering her rejection of policies aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 and arguing that she did a better job than his leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who often touts his own efforts to reopen businesses and reject mandates.
Despite not running for president, Noem has continued to position herself nationally. She has been an outspoken champion for the NRA, even bragging at a spring convention for the gun-rights group that her 1-year-old granddaughter “already has” firearms. During the first GOP presidential debate, she appeared in an ad to encourage businesses and families to move to what she calls “the freest state in America.”
South Dakota GOP chair John Wiik said he had expected about 7,000 people to attend the sold-out fundraiser, which was first envisioned as a Lincoln Day-style dinner commonly held by local Republican groups.
“I did get a lot of questions at first,” Wiik said about Trump’s decision to travel to his state just as the primary season kicks into its traditional post-Labor Day overdrive.
“But the more you look at it, Trump is a media event wherever he lands,” Wiik said. “He could do a rally on the moon and he’d spread his word and get just as many people, so I’m just glad he chose South Dakota.”
Colvin reported from New York.