Campaigns make final pitches to South Dakota voters
Trump stumps for Noem, Smith rallies in Sioux Falls; ballot measure backers lean on ads
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to supporters on Nov. 7, 2022, in Rapid City. (Kevin Eilbeck for South Dakota Searchlight)
Campaigns made their final pitches to voters on Monday ahead of an election that will see South Dakotans decide on a governor and other statewide offices, as well as the legal status of recreational marijuana and the expansion of Medicaid.
Incumbent Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and her opponent, Democrat Jamie Smith, traversed the state over the weekend and capped their tours with dueling rallies on opposite ends of the state.
Trump makes brief appearance for Noem
Noem addressed a large crowd Monday night at the Monument in Rapid City, a venue formerly known as the Rapid City Civic Center. Former President Donald
Trump appeared remotely after speeches from Noem and each Republican candidate for state-level, statewide office. The rally capped a busy week for the Noem, who hosted Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard last week.
Several of the Monday night speakers predicted a “red wave” of Republican wins in both South Dakota and across the country.
Trump, appearing from his airplane for just over a minute, called Noem a friend who had done “a fantastic job” running South Dakota.
“Kristi Noem is one of the best governors in the country. We have to reelect her by a wide margin,” Trump said.
Noem touted her record on gun rights, the COVID pandemic, her signature on a bill banning biological males from competing in women’s sports, and the state’s economy and a trend of inbound migration.
“South Dakota is proof that Republican values work,” Noem said. “All we did in South Dakota is what Republicans say they’ve always believed in, and it worked.”
Handing the reins over to Smith would tank the economy and undo the accomplishments of the past four years, she said.
“We’ve created opportunity for families, for business, to pursue the dreams they’ve had for many, many years,” Noem said.
Smith camp rallies in Sioux Falls
Smith’s rally took place at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. The District 15 state senator appeared alongside Brian Bengs, the retired Lt. Colonel and former Northern University professor challenging incumbent Republican Sen. John Thune for a U.S. Senate seat.
The small third floor stage also played host to nearly every Democrat on the ballot for statewide office.
Bengs told the audience that he’d traveled to all 66 counties in South Dakota meeting voters. He’s been able to connect with Republicans, he said, by finding common ground on the corrupting influence of political spending and politicians who spend too much time in Washington, D.C.
“I believe that every problem in our country is caused by, or made worse by, the influence of money in politics,” Bengs said.
Bengs introduced Smith as “the main event,” leading a chant as the gubernatorial hopeful’s wife Kjerstin took the stage to introduce her husband. After 27 years together, she said, “I have it on pretty good authority that what you see is what you get with Jamie.”
The Democratic challenger said he didn’t anticipate a close race with Noem, who outraised and outspent him by a wide margin. The most recent poll had Noem 19 points ahead, but an SDSU poll released shortly before that had Smith within a few points.
“I never thought we’d be standing here within the margin of error when we announced in February,” Smith said.
He said women’s reproductive health, daycare, preschool and health care for the uninsured are on the ballot for South Dakotans, and that his party has the ticket to deliver.
He pointed specifically to Amendment D, which would expand Medicaid eligibility.
“We have thousands of people who need health care, and we can bring it to them tomorrow by expanding Medicaid,” he said.
He also backed an initiative for recreational cannabis, something he said “I thought I’d never be campaigning for.”
Pro-pot group hopes to overcome odds
Supporters and opponents of those ballot measures have ramped up street team work, as well. Backers of Initiated Measure 27, which would legalize recreational marijuana for adults, say they feel good about their chances, in spite of polls that show their side lagging with likely voters.
Matthew Schweich of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws is confident undecided voters will break for cannabis. He cited the passage of Amendment A in 2020, which legalized both recreational and medicinal marijuana. The Amendment was tossed by the South Dakota Supreme Court after a challenge from two members of the South Dakota law enforcement community. Noem voiced support for the challenge.
“I think the sentiment that the politicians overturned the will of the people will carry us to victory,” Schweich said.
Medicinal marijuana passed in a separate initiative in 2020, and dispensaries began to open earlier this year after a rules-making process.
Last week, in the final stretch before the 2022 general election, the pro-recreational pot group organized a press conference with law enforcement backers. That virtual event was a response to an anti-pot gathering with Sioux Falls-area law enforcement and elected officials in late October.
The anti-IM 27 side has continued pushing out its message on the airwaves, said Jim Kinyon of Protecting South Dakota Kids. That messaging has largely taken the form of advertising, upon which the group has spent more than $300,000 since the primary. The pro-Iegalization group has spent around $23,000 on ads since spring and had less than $1,000 left on hand at the end of October.
Those working to defeat IM 27 are pleased with where they stand, Kinyon said, but they aren’t taking a win for granted.
“Resting is not going to be the answer here, because there’s an industry that wants to access our kids and communities,” he said.
Medicaid expansion advocates make last push
Advocates for the expansion of Medicaid in South Dakota via Constitutional amendment have also been working to get out the vote for their case. The state is one of 12 that hasn’t expanded the program since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Passage of Amendment D would make tens of thousands of South Dakotans eligible for Medicaid coverage.
Rick Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, believes “the tide has turned” on support for Medicaid expansion.
“Anything can happen, but I think the folks who support this feel pretty good about our chances,” Weiland said.
Dakotans for Health had about $77,600 in the bank at the time of the pre-general election campaign filing deadline, as well as the backing of groups like the League of Women Voters, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents of Amendment D have far less campaign cash. The group had no cash on hand before the election, according to Republican State Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, who is among the volunteers who regularly speaks against the ballot question.
“If we pull this off (a defeat for Amendment D), it will be the biggest David vs. Goliath story in the state,” Wiik said Monday.
Supporters of expansion have already begun work on a 2024 measure: a Constitutional amendment to codify a right to abortion. Organizer Pam Cole, a former chair of the South Dakota Democratic party, said the group collected more than 150 signatures in support of such an amendment at an event on Saturday, the first day volunteers could legally begin circulating petitions.
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