Despite her attack ads, I voted for Kristi Noem -- and disappointed my little fishing buddy

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Kristi Noem beat Marty Jackley partly through attack ads

In the end, I voted for Noem, flexing the restored primary election muscle that comes with a Republican registration in South Dakota.

“We Republicans” actually have choices in our primaries. And yesterday I made mine, not just in the governor’s race but in a variety of races on a busy ballot that mattered, from top to bottom.

Today I reveal my vote for Kristi Noem with regrets to Marty Jackley and, especially to his son, Michael, a precocious young angler who is one of my favorite fishing pals. Well, he was one of my fishing pals. I’m not sure whether my vote yesterday for the opposition candidate in what turned out to be a pretty nasty Republican gubernatorial primary will muddy the waters of our relationship.

We’ll see. If he’s as much like his dad as I think he is, I don’t expect much blowback. His dad’s a good guy, after all, despite what you might have concluded if you went by the barrage of negative advertisements against him by the Kristi Noem campaign over the final 10 days of the race.

Which is not to say his dad is a perfect guy, or has been a perfect attorney general. Despite his accomplishments, I'm sure Jackley could have done things better as attorney general in certain instances, perhaps not the least of them the case of Laura Zylstra Kaiser.

The former DCI agent received a $1.5 million settlement from the state after winning a court case against the DCI involving workplace sexual harassment and alleged retaliation. While not perfect, Jackley was also not at all the insensitive dictator and rule-of-law denier portrayed in the Noem campaign attack ads about the case.

The story, and Zylstra Kaiser herself, were dominate in ads running in the final days of the campaign. In one, Zylstra Kasier appears on camera to argue that Jackley isn’t fit to be governor or attorney general, which is an exaggeration of impressive proportions.

The case was more complicated, of course, than the ad would lead your typical viewer to believe. If you're still interested, this Argus Leader story covers quite a bit of it.

Two key players, for instance, were never mentioned in the ad: one was the Brown County deputy sheriff who apparently engaged in the actual harassment while working with Zylstra Kaiser on a multi-agency task force; the other was the sheriff himself, who apparently handled the situation badly. Nor did it mention the DCI agent who, at Jackley’s direction, investigated Kaiser’s complaints and was later fired by Jackley for not doing a good job on the case.

But attack ads aren’t about presenting all the facts, just the facts -- twisted as much as necessary -- that hurt the targeted candidate. They’re all about attacking, usually late in the campaign and in the most damaging way possible. And usually they work, even here in a state where we profess a love for honesty and fairness, to say nothing of simple good manners.

It’s pretty clear that this particular attack ad, and others of similar ominous style and reality distortion aired by the Noem campaign in the final campaign barrage, were costly to Jackley at the polls. His weak response attack about Noem “going Washington,” which is hardly effective against a grown-up farm girl who has managed to make it home from D.C. just about every weekend while in Congress, was ineffective and an unfortunate conclusion to Jackley’s otherwise issues-based campaign.

I wondered to a fellow reporter whether Jackley's team had failed in opposition research to come up with something more effective as a basis for an attack ad against Noem. Surely there must have been something worth distorting, but neither of us could come up with much.  Jackley was at a disadvantage by the nature of his job and certain unusual circumstances that left more potential ammunition for creative campaign strategists.

I would think Noem's attack ads against Jackley could cost her in reduced enthusiasm from the attorney general, and perhaps from his supporters, in offering support in the general election. I can’t imagine that he’ll spend much time or effort in providing that support. Besides, he has an AG term to finish up, and a next stage in life to explore.

Jackley lost by 56 percent to 44 percent. I expected him to lose all along, but by a thinner margin. Did the attack-add deluge win the election for Noem? I doubt it. But it certainly expanded the margin, or kept it from getting any tighter. Which was the point, of course.

As I wrote in the blog thread immediately below this one, I abhor that kind of campaigning. And as I spent Tuesday deciding who would get my vote, the attack ads had me leaning toward Jackley.

I know him pretty well, and I like what I know.  Our politics are different on most key issues, but I think he has been an able administrator and good attorney general who has represented South Dakota well, within the state’s boundaries of conservatism as he sees them.

I heard from other Republicans throughout the day yesterday who felt the same way, and voted for Jackley. One voted for Jackley simply because Noem tried to make him more culpable for the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals than any rational, informed mind could accept. That was in another attack ad, as well as in her comments.

But I have been inclined throughout the campaign to vote for Noem — first and foremost because she’s a woman. And I think we’ve had enough white Republican males in the governor’s chair, at least for a while. I’d like to see a woman in that job, and a different perspective. Or a Democrat, and a different perspective. Or a Native American -- Democrat or Republican, man or woman -- and a much different perspective.

All in good time, I hope. I think it would be good for us.

Second, Noem isn’t as much of a Republican insider as you might presume of someone who has been an assistant leader in the state House of Representatives and a four-term U.S. House member who was instrumental in rewriting the federal tax code. She has always rubbed some in the GOP establishment here the wrong way, just a little bit. And I think she's OK with that.

Maybe that would give her a bit of an outsider's perspective as governor, which couldn't hurt. Although when she says things, as she did in a Facebook thank-you after the election, like she wants to "bring genuine accountability to Pierre," you have to wonder: How do Dennis Daugaard, who has done pretty well in matters of accountability, and other Republicans in power now or recently in Pierre take that?

As criticism? If not, they should. Because that's what it is. How active will they and their pals be in her campaign? It could vary. In Daugaard's case, probably pretty active. He seems capable of overlooking things others might take more personally. Those others might be more likely to hold a grudge.

I was talking to a Democratic friend yesterday who initially said I should vote for Jackley because he’d be more vulnerable against the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Billie Sutton. But strictly comparing GOP candidates, my Democratic friend said I should vote for Noem because there’s more chance she will do things differently in Pierre and be open to ideas Jackley might close off. There could be some truth to that.

In 2010, I underestimated Noem in her late-starting run for the U.S. House. I decided after she beat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin that she was not to be underestimated. I’ve never seen anyone better on the campaign trail, or tougher when toughness is called for, and sometimes when it isn't. Yet Noem also speaks about having “a mother’s heart," and I’ve seen evidence of that in the way she interacted with kids who had attempted or considered suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

I've seen it in other areas, too, including the way she interacted during a gathering of mental-health professionals and advocates who met in Rapid City to discuss ways to help the mentally ill of any race or ethnic background. I intend to write about that, along with the value of a "mother's heart" more in detail soon.

I went back and forth in such considerations for most of the day Tuesday, taking a break to visit the periodontist around midday for some soft-tissue grafting along my gum line — as if making my voting decision on primary day wasn’t painful enough.

Still half numb but embracing the tortured realities of my mouth more each minute, I was finishing up a cell-phone conversation with my Democratic friend shortly before 5 p.m. I told him he had "closed well" in his arguments on behalf of Noem, then I strolled — slowly, so as not to get the gums bleeding again, although they would bleed anyway — to my polling place a few blocks away. (I had to walk because I promised I would in my last Rapid City Journal column, which argued the benefits of walking to events at the planned new civic center arena.)

When I reached the polling place and received my ballot I was reminded of how much fun it is to be a Republican voter on primary election day, whether or not you intend to maintain that registration until the next primary. You actually have some choices to make! My ballot had a bunch, including the non-partisan-if-still-political civic center arena issue for all city voters and Marsy’s Law for all state voters.

Then there were the three GOP primary candidates for the congressional seat, the two for governor and the three for the two District 32 state House spots, one of whom — in one of the saddest developments of the political year — had died before the election.

Incumbent state Rep. Sean McPherson, a 47-year-old minister and man of much love and many friends, died from cancer in late April. He was in failing health but filed for reelection in late March, so his name remained on the ballot.

With 35 percent, Sean McPherson finished second to Scyller Borglum, who had 39 percent. Ed Randazzo, a tea party style candidate who would have otherwise moved on to the general election with Borglum, finished third with 26 percent.

Now GOP officers and officials living in District 32 will choose a replacement for McPherson on the general-election ballot, which could be Randazzo, or not. Choices for some of those party organizational spots were on the ballot I had. It also included an interesting county commission primary, the county auditor’s race and choices on party convention delegates. It was a much more entertaining voter experience than my Democratic friend had.

“It took me about 10 seconds,” he said.

Same story for independents who can vote in the Democratic primary only, but rarely have many choices, either.

Now, though, things get a lot more interesting for Democrats and independents, as they look ahead to a campaign season that will feature a U.S. House race between main contenders Dusty Johnson, a big winner Tuesday, for the Republicans and Tim Bjorkman for the Democrats. And in the governor’s race, Billie Sutton can finally begin his campaign against an identified Republican opponent in Noem.

Could Sutton be the target of some attack ads, too, if the race were to get close enough? Maybe, but I can’t imagine what they would be.

Maybe that he's too nice?


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.