South Dakota’s Noem, Thune face challengers running to right

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has parlayed popularity with Republicans for her hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions into national prominence. But that hasn’t insulated her from criticism — and a primary challenger — from the right in the reliably conservative state.

Noem will look to show her strength with Republican voters in Tuesday’s primary against state Rep. Steve Haugaard, a former state House speaker who has accused Noem of using the governor’s office to mount a 2024 White House bid.

Noem has used this election fundraising cycle to collect a record amount of money for a South Dakota gubernatorial candidate — bringing in more than $15 million from a series of fundraisers all over the country.

The first-term governor will be hoping for a big primary victory before heading into a general election contest against Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith, who did not face a primary challenger.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, is facing two primary challengers who joined the race after Thune drew the ire of former President Donald Trump. Trump speculated the senator’s career was “over” after he made public statements dismissing the former president’s lies about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

One candidate, Mark Mowry, was among the crowd that demonstrated near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The other challenger, Bruce Whalen, ran for Congress in 2006 but lost the general election in a landslide.

Neither of the challengers is well-funded or well-known in the state, and in a sign that Thune could be positioned for victory, Trump has steered clear of South Dakota.

Thune is a longtime fixture as the state GOP’s elder statesman, and if he wins reelection to a fourth term, he is a likely pick to succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader.

Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson is facing a primary challenge from state lawmaker Taffy Howard for the state’s lone House spot. The $300,000 her campaign has raised has been dwarfed by Johnson’s $1.8 million.

The congressman has taken a measured approach on most issues and has touted his work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Problem Solvers Caucus. Howard has tried to challenge him from the right, creating a primary race that will show just how strong the more extreme wing of the Republican Party has grown in South Dakota.

That intraparty conflict has been fought across a slate of legislative primary races where Republicans have launched attack ads against each other. Establishment Republicans are trying to weed out a group of contrarian lawmakers who have pushed the Legislature further right.

Primary voters will also decide on an amendment to the state constitution, proposed by Republican lawmakers, that would make it more difficult to pass ballot initiatives that raise taxes or spend public funds. The proposal would place a 60% vote threshold on ballot measures to raise taxes or spend more than $10 million within five years of enactment.

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