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Kristi Noem tried to take a victory lap for her coronavirus response on CBS. It did not go well.

South Dakota’s governor got a great reception at CPAC. Her interview on Face the Nation hours later was a different story.

Noem speaks at a clear acrylic platform with a red-white-and-blue backdrop, wearing a sleeveless red dress and a lapel mic.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at CPAC on Saturday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

South Dakota governor and rising conservative star Kristi Noem was a big hit at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, where she bragged about her state’s response to the coronavirus during a headlining speech. But an interview she did hours later with CBS highlighted how her attempt to turn reality on its head doesn’t survive scrutiny.

In reality, South Dakota’s laissez faire approach to the pandemic — including Noem’s refusal to enforce a mask mandate — has amounted to “a failed experiment in herd immunity,” as Bloomberg recently put it. The state has one of the 10 highest mortality rates in the United States. More than 1 in 500 residents has died since the pandemic began. And, as Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan noted during the CBS interview, South Dakota’s mortality rate has been the highest in the country since last July.

Noting that the governor is a staunch conservative, Brennan pressed Noem to explain how someone who claims to care about the sanctity of life can “justify making decisions that put the health of your constituents at risk.” Her response was nonsensical whataboutism.

“Those are questions that you should be asking every other governor in this country as well,” she said, even though the whole point of the question is that South Dakota’s Covid-19 response has been a failure — and far more limited — when compared to the vast majority of other states.

Perhaps most egregiously, Noem encouraged people to come to her state last August for the Sturgis motorcycle rally, despite the raging pandemic.

Public health experts said holding the rally, which ultimately drew nearly 500,000 people, was a very bad idea. And at least one study has borne that out — research from the Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies at San Diego State University found it not only could have infected hundreds of thousands of people with the virus, but will potentially involve more than $12 billion in health care costs.

Asked about the San Diego study by Brennan, Noem indicated she values allowing “people to make decisions for themselves” above all else.

“Listen, what we did was allow people to make decisions for themselves,” she said. “We gave them all the information on this virus — how to protect their health — and then we allowed them to make decisions on what they would do.”

“My question is, if we had mandated that people had to stay home, if we had mandated that businesses had to be closed, would that have made a difference?” Noem continued. “I would argue that it wouldn’t have.”

As Brennan pointed out, however, Noem’s position is not backed up by facts. In addition to the aforementioned San Diego study linking Sturgis with many thousands of cases, President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, recently described Noem’s decision to allow Sturgis as “not okay.” And as the Washington Post reports, health experts believe the rally may have seeded coronavirus cases across the Midwest, contributing to the rise in cases seen nationally last fall.

Noem’s coronavirus response has even been panned by Republicans like West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who responded to critics of his mask mandate last November by saying, “I don’t want to be South Dakota.” Brennan asked Noem about Justice’s remark, but instead of engaging with it, Noem immediately pivoted to bashing blue-state governors like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, both of whom have faced questions over their Covid-19 response.

In short, Noem’s CBS interview did not go well for her. But Margaret Brennan is not the GOP base, and if Noem’s CPAC reception is any indication, Republican voters actually view her coronavirus response as a success.

Noem’s CPAC speech illustrated how little conservatives have learned about the coronavirus

“Let me be clear — Covid didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy,” Noem claimed at CPAC on Saturday, before taking a direct shot at trusted public health experts.

“Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” she added, to huge applause.

Noem’s position that personal freedoms are more important than public health seemed to be the consensus view at CPAC. This was illustrated by a remarkable scene on Friday in which organizers of the conference had to beg attendees to follow hotel rules and wear a mask on the premises, to boos and yells of “freedom!”

Noem isn’t big on masks herself. Earlier this month, she was widely criticized for tweeting out photos of herself posing maskless with a group of legislative pages during a dinner at the governor’s mansion (all but one page in the photo was maskless).

At the very least, the photo set a bad example for her constituents — particularly given she has left it up to them whether to wear masks. But in these polarized times, what to the scientifically minded looks like a bad example looks to Republicans like a heroic example of owning the libs.

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