PIERRE, S.D. — Standing before an "America Uncanceled" banner in a pink dress, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addressed a political conference in Florida on Saturday, Feb. 27, issuing a series of conservative mantras, reframing her state's struggles with the pandemic as a big success, and telling a story about her father.
"Stories are much more powerful than facts and statistics," said the Republican governor and former congresswoman, whose stature has increased over the past year for refusing medical advice from leading experts who encouraged her to implement a mask mandate, even while the state's COVID-19 deaths skyrocketed.
But in Noem's universe, which appeared to be shared by Saturday's politically friendly audience, she -- not the experts -- will have the last laugh.
"I don't know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot," said Noem, lashing out at America's leading epidemiologist to loud laughter and applause from the audience.
Noem also took a jab at embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was investigated by the New York attorney general for undercounting pandemic-related deaths in nursing homes.
"That is the media's COVID hero," said Noem, to boos at mention of the liberal New Yorker. "And by the way, he also earned an Emmy and he wrote a book on his COVID-19 response. So who really needed the advice?"
Noem, whose state has also seen outbreaks of the deadly virus in nursing homes, has flown to Florida during something of a political cloud in her Pierre, S.D. On Tuesday, she called for the resignation of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who killed a man last fall while driving on a rural highway, and ordered state officials to release investigative videos from the case.
But a county judge ruled that Noem had overstepped her authority and ordered the videos removed from a state website. On Thursday, an attorney representing Ravnsborg called Noem's release of information "unprecedented" and "unusual."
Nevertheless, Noem made no mention of her attorney general, and instead touted her own decision not to impose a statewide mask mandate or business closure order.
"No governor should ever arrest, ticket, or fine people for exercising their freedoms," said Noem.
South Dakota's governor has been listed as a potential GOP presidential candidate for 2024, and the annual CPAC conference -- held this year in Florida amid pandemic restrictions in Maryland -- is a proving ground for a number of candidates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the crowd on Friday, and U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz also were slated to talk. Former President Trump will speak on Sunday.
Noem has yet to fully distinguish herself beyond her COVID-19 posture, even acknowledging to the crowd, "A year ago, most of you had no idea who I was." But on Saturday, she tried out a litany of political mantras, saying "conservatives must be smarter than progressives" and "we don't have the media on our side" and knocking "self-important government bureaucrats."
But the former state legislator sounded most at home speaking about an event that she has said catapulted her political interests from a young age: the death of her father.
"I pushed the play button and immediately I heard my dad's voice. He was talking about seed corn varieties," said Noem, remembering sorting her father's items in the console of his pick-up truck months after this own death, caused by a farm accident.
"I made a decision that day, to be like my dad," said Noem.
The South Dakota governor, according to her spokesman, did not fly to Florida aboard a state airplane, which has been the source of speculation of misuse of state assets in recent weeks. She'll appear on Sunday morning before CBS's Face the Nation, as will Fauci.