Some conservative groups down on Noem as Rounds challenger

As Rep. Kristi Noem continues to ponder running for U.S. Senate, some national conservative groups are skeptical she’d be the “conservative alternative” they want to former Gov. Mike Rounds in the race.

Rounds, who has drawn some fire from the right for refusing to sign a no-tax-increase pledge, has said he expects a primary challenge. Experts believe Noem would be his most dangerous rival in a GOP primary.

But the Club For Growth, a fiscally conservative group that’s not a fan of Rounds, said Noem’s no better.

"Neither Mike Rounds nor Kristi Noem is the type of candidate we would support," said Barney Keller, the Club’s communications director. "Neither of them are fiscal conservatives."

Meanwhile the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is also searching for a Rounds challenger, is “reviewing (Noem’s) record and watching to see how she’ll perform in office.”

"The farm bill is a big test," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund. "That’s an issue where I’m sure that she is very supportive of the farm program, but it’s been larded up with all these food stamps. What we really need is we need leaders in Washington who are willing to say, ‘I know this issue is very important to my constituents, but this isn’t the right way to legislate.’"

Noem voted for the farm bill as it passed the House Agriculture Committee and said she’s working hard to pass the bill.

"She’s for that but believes there’s still room for improvement," said Courtney Heitkamp, Noem’s spokeswoman.

Noem has supported cuts to the food stamp program that many Democrats say go too far, but it’s unclear if she goes far enough for groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Jordan Stoick, Noem’s chief of staff, defended the congresswoman’s conservatism.

"Rep. Noem is not beholden to any special interest group," Stoick said in a statement. "She has a solid record of cutting out-of-control government spending and will continue working hard to promote conservative solutions to the problems facing our country."

Rounds declined to comment on the Club For Growth’s comments.

Some conservative activists predict South Dakota conservatives would rally around Noem even if national groups don’t.

Former state senator Bill Napoli, who is considering challenging Rounds himself, said Noem isn’t a “hard-core conservative” but that she votes and acts conservative and has conservative beliefs.

"She’d be head over heels better than Mike Rounds," Napoli said.

Political science professor Jon Schaff of Northern State University said Noem would probably have the best chance of beating Rounds of any potential GOP primary rivals.

"Noem has establishment credential, but also she has credibility with, shall we say, the tea party wing of the party," said Schaff. "She straddles both sides. In that sense she would be a formidable primary challenger to Mike Rounds."

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Noem might be more likely to run now that Rick Weiland is the presumed Democratic Senate nominee and not former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Herseth Sandlin was considered by many outside experts to be a more formidable candidate before she decided not to run.

"If she only has to win a competitive primary and not deal with a competitive general election, (running for Senate) probably looks like a better path," Gonzales said. "I think most members of Congress would rather run every six years than every two years, if they had their choice."

It’s unclear when additional Republicans might enter the race. Noem has said she’ll make a decision in late summer, but is watching the race and has talked with outside groups about a possible run, according to an interview with The Hill newspaper. 

Noem isn’t under financial pressures to enter the race. While potential candidates like Napoli or state Rep. Stace Nelson can’t raise campaign funds until they declare their candidacy, Noem can fundraise for her House reelection campaign and then transfer that bank account to a Senate run later on.

Hoskins said his group doesn’t feel an urgency to get a Rounds challenger soon, with the 2014 GOP primary still more than a year away.

"I think there’s time," he said, while adding that it’s "good for candidates to get in and get running."

But Napoli warned that waiting too long could cost Noem.

"I hope she doesn’t wait until too much time has gone by, but I would like to see her run for that seat," he said. 

If Noem waits too long, “a lot of people will have committed to other candidates,” Napoli said. “I think that might really affect her race.”