Breaking: Rep. Kristi Noem won’t run for Senate, will run for reelection

One of the biggest names in South Dakota Republican politics has decided not to run for U.S. Senate, heading off what could have been a fierce intra-party battle.

After months of consideration, Rep. Kristi Noem announced Tuesday that she won’t run for Senate against former Gov. Mike Rounds. Instead, she’ll seek a third term in the House of Representatives.

The U.S. Senate race is a rare open seat, created by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. With control of the Senate in the balance, South Dakota voters could help shape the country’s political direction for years to come.

Noem’s decision is good news for Rounds and GOP officials hopeful to avoid a civil war.

“I would have encouraged Kristi to exercise her rights to run for whatever she wants, but frankly, as a party chairman, this is good news,” said Craig Lawrence, the chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party. “I don’t want our two titans to shoot each other.”

Experts said Noem’s news is a blow to Democratic hopes that Republicans would damage each other in a contentious primary. While Rounds is still likely to face one or more challengers, none of them have Noem’s name recognition.

Noem, 41, seriously considered running for Senate, including talking with Sen. John Thune and some outside groups about the prospect.

But she ultimately chose to avoid a primary battle against Rounds, a two-term former governor who left office with high approval ratings.

“After spending the weekend discussing our future with Bryon and our children, we decided that right now we are in the best position to serve South Dakota as a member of the U.S. House,” Noem said in a statement.

In her statement, Noem thanked “everyone who has encouraged me and pledged support for a potential campaign for the U.S. Senate.”

Running against Rounds might have just been too risky for Noem’s career, even against the prize of possibly winning a U.S. Senate seat.

“She would losing an almost-sure-thing House seat to take an enormous risk, and one that might end up burning a lot of bridges with the state party,” said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University. “She’s still pretty early in her career…  This is probably not her best chance of success. I would bet she’s anticipating that chance will come in the future.”

Rounds declared his candidacy late last year, an early start Schaff said may have deterred Noem from taking the plunge. 

After Noem’s announcement, Rounds’ campaign manager released a statement thanking Noem and endorsing her House reelection bid.

“He respects her decision and we’ve pledged to do everything in our power to assist in her re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Rob Skjonsberg, Rounds’ campaign manager, in the statement. “It’s time to come together and support a united team for South Dakota.”

The two spoke Tuesday morning about Noem’s decision.

Though Rounds endorsed Noem, the congresswoman didn’t say she’s supporting Rounds for Senate. In her statement, she said she would “work hard to help elect a South Dakota Republican to the U.S. Senate next year” but didn’t mention Rounds.

Rick Weiland, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle and two-time congressional candidate, is the only announced Democratic candidate. In a statement, Weiland said Noem’s decision doesn’t change the race.

"The question before her decision and after it remains the same," he said. "Are we going to keep letting big money run the show in Washington, or are we going to take back our country and put it to work for everyday South Dakotans instead of billionaires and big corporations?"

Ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat who lost to Noem in 2010, also publicly considered running for Senate only to decide against it. U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, also pondered a Senate run but decided to stay out.

Noem’s decision doesn’t clear the field for Rounds, so far the only announced Republican candidate. Some conservative activists have called for a “conservative alternative” to Rounds, saying he’s not far enough to the right.

A number of current and former state lawmakers have said they’re thinking about running against Rounds in the GOP primary. Dr. Annette Bosworth, a Sioux Falls physician, announced Monday she is exploring a Senate run as a Republican.

None of them could match Noem’s profile. A two-time statewide victor, including in a hotly contested 2010 race, Noem is widely known, a tenacious campaigner and a strong fundraiser.

Despite these credentials as a candidate, some of Rounds’ fiercest opponents on the right said Noem wasn’t the conservative alternative they were looking for. National groups like the Club For Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund said she doesn’t meet their standards of fiscal conservatism, though Noem dismissed the criticism.

With Noem definitively out of the Senate race, observers expect other contenders to make their moves soon.

“Now that she’s announced for the House, there are going to be people that are going to step up,” said Bill Napoli, a former state lawmaker from Rapid City who has considered running for Senate himself. “I think you’re going to see things start happening very quickly now.”

Lawrence said the party will remain impartial and welcome any extra candidates. But he sees Rounds as a strong candidate.

“If anyone wants to run against Mike, that’s their right and they can have at it,” Lawrence said. “The party will remain impartial. But we are happy when there isn’t a primary and you have a strong candidate.”