Mistakes were made.
That's my take from listening to Kristi Noem's CPAC Dallas speech in which she thought it'd be a good idea to take shots at Ron DeSantis over COVID policy. The South Dakota governor and likely 2024 hopeful hit DeSantis for beach closures, as well as insinuating he's lying when he says Florida didn't lockdown.
Here's the text of the remarks before I get into why this is a big error on Noem's part.
SD Gov. Kristi Noem at CPAC with quiet shots fired at DeSantis
"Let's talk about rewriting history. We've got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn't shut down their states, that they didn't close their beaches…." pic.twitter.com/xMmsjasPaY
— Meg Cunningham (@Meg_Cunn) July 11, 2021
Let's talk about the substance here, because I think it's both misleading, and not necessarily wrong at the same time. Yes, Florida did close some beaches in COVID hotspots for a very short period of time. Still, that's not the same as a full-blown, extended lockdown, and I think it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that. Further, there's a difference between doing something in April of 2020 and doing it in April of 2021. DeSantis was obviously making decisions on the fly, with the data as it came in. There was a period where no one really had any idea what COVID would be. It's hard to fault any governor for doing something as minuscule as closing some beaches for a few weeks in the early days of the response.
In short, Noem isn't wrong in saying that her state remained less locked down than even Florida. Still, it's impossible to deny that DeSantis' overall handling of COVID was excellent.
So, why do I think taking these shots is a mistake — even if she might have some semblance of a point? Because she's punching up way too early. She's also inviting criticism of her own record on COVID, and that could be a much bigger problem for her in a general election.
DeSantis is rivaling Donald Trump in some 2024 primary polls. Noem is barely cracking 1-3%. It's just way, way too early to be swinging at the heir apparent, which DeSantis undoubtedly is for most Republican voters. Even if she landed some punches, the effects of them won't help her three years from now. This is the kind of thing you save for a GOP primary debate stage in late 2023, when asked specifically about COVID. You don't start making enemies of top GOP figures in 2021 when you've already had your own controversies hobble your appeal.
The other issue is that South Dakota's COVID death rate is a lot higher than Florida's, clocking in at 10th. By saying she made the “right” decision in having no mitigation early on at all, Noem opens herself up to the counter-attack that her decision wasn't actually right at all.
Noem would do a lot better to avoid the insults right now and just do what conservatives are asking in her home state. There will be time to draw contrasts a few years from now, and I say all this as someone who hasn't written Noem off over her unwillingness to take on the transgender sports issue. I think it's a good thing for her to be in the fight, and I like her overall record, but she has to be politically smarter than this.