By JILL COLVIN and STEPHEN GROVES Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — As his rivals hold town halls and meet-and-greets in early voting states, Donald Trump will head to South Dakota Friday for a party fundraiser that will double as an opportunity for the state’s governor, Kristi Noem, to showcase herself as a potential vice presidential pick.
Trump will join the South Dakota Republican Party for a “Monumental Leaders Rally” in Rapid City. Noem will appear alongside the former president and is expected to endorse him, creating an image of the pair that Noem’s allies hope looks like a presidential ticket, according to two senior Republicans familiar with her thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity because she had not yet made her endorsement public.
Trump’s decision to headline the event underscores his dominance of the Republican race even as he faces four separate indictments and 91 felony counts. South Dakota holds a late primary and isn’t competitive in a general election. But with a huge lead, Trump is skipping much of the traditional primary campaign. Instead of large-scale rallies, he is relying on state party events that offer large, friendly audiences at no cost to his campaign, while his political organization pays millions of dollars in legal expenses.
Friday’s visit by Trump is something of an audition for Noem. She planned the event as a way to both offer her endorsement and maximize face time with Trump as he considers potential 2024 running mates and cabinet members, according to one of the Republicans who spoke anonymously. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment.
Noem will be term-limited in 2026 and, after declining to run for president this year, is eyeing her next move to maintain prominence in the GOP.
“I think Donald Trump has a 50-50 shot of getting elected at this point, so why not hitch your wagon to him if you can?” said Michael Card, a longtime observer of South Dakota politics who suggested Noem might also make a future National Rifle Association president or conservative commentator.
Voting won’t begin for several months and Trump’s indictments and upcoming criminal trials create an unprecedented situation that many strategists argue could influence the race in unexpected ways. That hasn’t stopped those who are keen to be considered as Trump’s running mate from openly jockeying for the position and trying to curry favor with him and his aides.
Aides caution it is far too early for serious discussions. But Trump has indicated in conversations that he is interested in selecting a woman this time around. Among the other names that have been floated: New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Florida Rep. Byron Donalds and Sen. Tim Scott have also been mentioned.
Trump will be in Iowa, the first state on the GOP nomination calendar, on Saturday to attend the college football game between Iowa and Iowa State.
“What we’re focused on is just locking up this primary and pivoting towards the general election,” said campaign spokesman Steven Cheung.
Noem was long considered a potential White House contender in her own right and had told The New York Times in November that she didn’t believe Trump offered “the best chance” for the party in 2024. She has since said she saw no point in joining the crowded field running for the nomination given Trump’s dominant position.
“I would in a heartbeat,” she told Newsmax when asked this week about whether she would consider joining a potential Trump ticket if asked. “President Trump needs a strong partner if he’s going to take back the White House, and he’s going to need somebody who knows what it’s like to run a business, to be an employee, earn a paycheck, but also having a wife, mom and a grandma isn’t bad either.”
It will be Trump’s first visit to South Dakota since the summer of 2020, when he headlined a Fourth of July fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day. The then-president had been looking for a venue to turn the page after a summer of pandemic lockdowns and racial justice protests. Noem’s event at Mount Rushmore was notably devoid of pandemic restrictions.
She also gifted him a miniature replica of Mount Rushmore with his likeness carved alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
“I don’t know exactly,” Trump said Thursday when asked if Noem will endorse him. “But I am going. I like her a lot. I think she’s great. Kristi’s done a great job.” He has often praised her handling of the pandemic, saying again Thursday she had done “a fantastic job.”
A former member of Congress, Noem in 2018 squeezed out a surprisingly close win over a Democratic challenger to become South Dakota’s first female governor. She rose to national prominence with a mostly hands-off approach to the pandemic and tacked closely to the urgings of Trump to return to life as normal.
She handily won reelection last year, even as she performed worse than other Republicans on the ballot.
Despite not running for president, Noem has continued to position herself nationally. She has been an outspoken champion for the National Rifle Association, even bragging at a spring convention for the gun-rights group that her 1-year-old granddaughter “already has” firearms. She has also defended South Dakota’s abortion ban and will appear at a Michigan fundraiser later this month to support Republican Senate candidate Mike Rogers.
During the first GOP presidential debate, she appeared in an ad to encourage businesses and families to move to what she calls “the freest state in America.”
Friday’s event is expected to draw protesters targeting both Trump and Noem, said Annie Bachand, CEO of the South Dakota-based group Liberty & Justice for All.
“The reason that we show up is to demonstrate to other people that we’re not alone,” Bachand said. “Kristi Noem has spent more time out campaigning for I don’t know what than she has in South Dakota. She has more interest in her own self-interest than she does in taking care of the people of South Dakota.”
South Dakota GOP chair John Wiik said he expects about 7,000 people to attend the sold-out fundraiser. The event was first planned as a Lincoln Day-style fundraising dinner commonly held by local Republican groups, Wiik said, but it later ballooned into a rally with proceeds going to the state party.
“I did get a lot of questions at first,” Wiik said about Trump’s decision to travel to his state just as the primary season kicks into its traditional post-Labor Day overdrive.
“But the more you look at it, Trump is a media event wherever he lands,” Wiik said. “He could do a rally on the moon and he’d spread his word and get just as many people, so I’m just glad he chose South Dakota.”
Colvin reported from New York.