Cowgirl Kristi Noem ropes in Capitol Hill: A Washington love story

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Last Valentine’s Day, South Dakota businessman Ted Hustead fell in love, politically speaking.

His state’s legislature was considering taxing road signs. For Hustead, the owner of Wall Drug, that meant war. Wall Drug may have more road signs than any single entity on the planet. The signs stretch for hundreds of miles along Interstate I-90 and are also in Paris, Kenya, London and at the South Pole.

While testifying against the bill, Hustead began to take notice of a new face.

“All of the sudden I’m just sort of watching her on the committee and noticing her and noticing how articulate she is, and how knowledgeable she is and how she understood both sides of the issue,” said Husted. “After the committee dispersed I just sat back in my chair and watched her work the room. I was just very impressed with her.”

“She” was state Rep. Kristi Noem and Hustead, one of the most powerful political money men in the state, would be a good friend to have, helping her raise more than $2 million.

Unimpressed with two other candidates who’d announced runs, Hustead learned from a lobbyist friend that Noem would be announcing her candidacy for South Dakota’s only seat in the House of Representatives the following day.

“I said to the lobbyist, ‘Please get a hold of Kristi Noem and have her call me … I know where the money is,’” Hustead said. Noem agreed to drive across the state for dinner.

Everything was going well at dinner as the two discussed the logistics of how Hustead could help. It was getting late, though: 8:30 p.m. Hustead was feeling guilty about Noem’s long trip home — a two-hour drive with a loss of one hour from the difference in time zones.

That’s when Noem made her pitch. “The real reason I’m here is I want you to be my treasurer,” she said. Hustead was thrilled. The two kept talking into the night until finally, at 11:30 p.m. or so, she left, to arrive home after 2 a.m.

The next morning, at 7:30, Hustead found a page-and-a-half-long e-mail thanking him for dinner and outlining her plans for him as her treasurer.

Meet Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s new congresswoman

On Nov. 2, Noem beat former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, widely considered a rising star of the Democratic party, in an improbable victory. Shortly after the election she was chosen by her freshmen peers for one of two spots to represent the class in GOP leadership meetings.

Noem, 39, draws praise from a wide array of Republican politicos in D.C., who see great promise in her potential as an attractive messenger for the party. Her former colleagues in the South Dakota legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, laud her pragmatism and determination.

Recently rated “hottest freshman” in Congress by Huffington Post readers, a throng of photographers greeted her at the airport when she first arrived in the nation’s capital. “She walked right into a hornets’ nest — there were paparazzi at the airport!” Hustead said.

With a beaming smile and big, Western hair, Noem is attractive enough to provoke frequent references from male Republican operatives. “I hear you’re working on a Kristi Noem piece or are you just trying to get a piece of Kristi Noem???” one GOP press secretary e-mailed out of the blue. (The author is married, as is his subject, who with husband Byron has three children.) Another aide said he has seen her up close in the Capitol and “she is legit hot.”

Noem does not relish that brand of attention. Of the Huffington Post story, she said in an interview, “I thought that was kind of an unfortunate distraction, I guess, when that came out. I don’t think about that too much. I’d rather they were talking about my solutions for our country rather than that, but we’ll get there.”

Though some have made easy comparisons to two other high-profile Republican women, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, the Democratic leader in the South Dakota state House, Bernie Hunhoff, said she’s no such thing.

“I didn’t find her to be a hardline conservative, although she could give the talking points as well as anybody,” Hunhoff said, “I don’t think she’ll be a Michele Bachmann or a Sarah Palin … we were able to sit down and work out a compromise.”

Noem agrees. “For me, maybe it’s the benefit of not having a dream of being in politics my whole life. I’ve just lived a real life,” she said. She doesn’t know yet what she’ll introduce as her first bill. “We’ve got some ideas,” she said.

GOP insiders say that, so far, Noem has not been leading her fellow congressional rookies to take on Republican leadership on issues like spending cuts. Instead, Rep. Tim Scott, the other freshman in leadership, has galvanized the 87 newcomers.

A tragic path to life on the ranch — exacerbated by the estate tax

Noem grew up on her family’s working ranch in Hamlin County, South Dakota. Her father was “was kind of superman,” Noem said, “You know, he was a cowboy and a very hard worker. I don’t remember very many days where he wasn’t up and out the door by 5 or 6 a.m. He came in late at night. Nobody ever out-worked him. He demanded a lot out of his family. He taught us to work hard and to do everything with excellence, but he never expected more out of us than he was willing to do as well.”

On the campaign trail, Noem spoke frequently with Hustead about her father, remembering how he would wake her up before the sun rose to go elk hunting and stay up past her bedtime reading the Bible. She had wanted to be just like him. “I knew from the time I was little that I wanted to grow up and to farm and ranch with my dad,” Noem said.

But while she was away at South Dakota State University, Noem’s father died in a tragic farming accident. “If you happen to fall into a grain bin with corn, it can almost suck you up like quicksand, and that’s what happened to him,” said Bob Faehn, the former Republican leader in the South Dakota State House.

Her siblings in other states, Noem left college to come home and run the family ranch. The wrenching loss colored what had been her dream. “It was very hard to imagine doing it without him,” she said.

In the midst of loss, the family was hit with a major financial burden from the estate tax.

“We had to make a decision if we were going to sell land to pay those taxes or take out a loan. We chose, and made the decision, to take out a loan. But for 10 years that loan really impacted our ability to make a profit every year,” Noem said.

The tax hit turned into a galvanizing moment for young Noem politically. “That was definitely when my eyes opened. You know, when you run a business, you have a lot of experiences that teach you the ways that government can interfere or make it more difficult for you to keep your doors open,” she said.

Two years later, to make ends meet, Noem opened a lodge, guiding pheasant hunts. “I have a Benelli 12 gauge that I shoot most of the time. We have a 20 gauge, too, but usually one of my daughters is using that one,” she said. Asked if she was a good shot, Noem replied: “I can hold my own.”

Meanwhile, Noem’s widowed mother bought a coffee shop, part of a lifelong dream to own a restaurant. “Within about six months or a year she called and said, “I need some help, you know the restaurant business is hard.” So I would go up there at night and I helped do her books and help manage her employees and things like that. That got to be kind of involved after a while and took more and more time,” Noem said.

A quick rise in South Dakota politics

Resolved to limit the sometimes destructive role of the government on business, Noem started dipping her toes into politics, serving on local boards and committees.

In 2006, Noem ran and won for a seat in the state House. In her second term, she was promoted to assistant Republican leader under Faehn, who saw great promise in his junior colleague. “I want you to remember her name,” he told colleagues.

Noem was a quick study and stuck to her party’s script. She was known for being forceful behind closed doors. “She’s very outgoing and friendly. But she certainly can be tough. She absolutely can be tough,” Faehn said.

In 2009, Noem showed her tough side in accusing Scott Heidepriem, a state senator, of an unethical conflict of interest in the middle of a legislative hearing. At issue was a proposal purportedly to stop an Indian casino from being built. Heidepriem’s law firm was handling legal work for an Indian tribe on a casino-related lawsuit. He said he hadn’t known, but the drama killed the proposal.

There are some murmurs that political operatives found Noem difficult to work with during her congressional campaign. Her campaign manager, returning The Daily Caller’s first (of many) calls requesting an interview demanded to know if the story was going to be about how Noem “burns through staff.”

Life in the fast lane

When Noem sent Hustead a detailed e-mail sometime in the hours between 2 and 7:30 a.m., it showed her admirable work ethic. Another factor may have been that she arrived home sooner than Hustead thought she would.

For instance, days after her dinner with Hustead, the police pulled Noem over for driving 94 miles per hour. In South Dakota, that’s a $130 fine, where the distances between towns are large and the roads flat and often empty. “That’s more of a comment on South Dakota culture than it is on Kristi Noem,” said Hustead. In driving the state’s long distances “you reach a point where if you can crank it up a little bit it might be safer than falling asleep.”

Even for big sky country, Noem has a bit of a lead foot. When she got caught going 94, it was her 20th speeding ticket.

Noem once defended her speeding ticket history, saying, “It’s kind of always been in my nature to be in a hurry and get things done.”

After Herseth Sandlin nearly stalled Noem’s candidacy attacking her over the issue, including a website devoted to the issue with a large “Wanted” banner, she’s sounding a more contrite note.

“I know that I’ve had some really bad habits in the past. And, you know, I’ve really, I’m really focused on making sure I’m a safe driver. I’ve apologized for my driving record. I’m determined to do better and recognize that it certainly was something that I need to do better with,” she told TheDC.

Ultimately, voters’ deep skepticism toward President Obama’s liberal agenda in Washington helped Noem overcome the issue in her campaign.

One example of those sentiments came as Noem and Hustead were traveling the state, raking in huge sums of money, Hustead recalled encountering the reaction to that agenda at a meeting with local bankers.

They said “the White House does not understand business. And another bank executive said what is really scary is maybe they really do understand business and what they want to do is redistribute the wealth,” Hustead said.

Noem’s first debate with Herseth Sandlin – the first debate of her political career – was another pivotal factor. That day, it was hot and humid, 90 degrees. Hustead was a wreck on Noem’s behalf, but she was poised, composed, without a bead of sweat on her brow.

After the debate, Hustead, incredulous, asked how she did it. “I was just completely dead inside,” she said.

On the way home, Noem reflected on the importance of the campaign. “If I can’t win this race, I’m gonna feel bad for America. If I can’t win a red state like South Dakota, what does that say for America?” she said.

But the campaign started to take off in unbelievable ways. Media requests poured in. Matt Drudge put Noem prominently on his site with the headline, “A Star Is Born.” (Surprisingly, Noem said this was “not important at all” in an effort to appear concerned about South Dakota over Washington).

On Election Day, Noem beat a rising star of the Democratic party by three points. She became one of 87 new Republican freshman sent by millions of angry voters hoping to slow the Obama agenda. From a ranch in a town of 400, she’ll walk the halls of power in Washington.

“She has more raw talent than any candidate I’ve ever seen in South Dakota,” said Hustead, “I knew the more people that I can get Kristi Noem in front of the more votes we’re gonna get.”