WATERTOWN, S.D. (KELO) — Governor Kristi Noem refused multiple requests from news organizations to face her challenger in a statewide debate or make a joint statewide appearance prior to the June 7 Republican primary election. She still won in a landslide, defeating state Representative Steven Haugaard for the nomination 91,661 to 28,315.

But on Saturday, at the South Dakota Republican convention, Haugaard’s backers are appealing to a much smaller pool of delegates to pair him on the November ticket with Noem to be her running mate, rather than the person she wants to continue as her lieutenant governor, Larry Rhoden. The nomination process formally begins at 10 a.m.

Noem spoke about Rhoden on Friday night in a dinner speech at the convention. She said the advice she received four years ago from many was she should choose a Sioux Falls businessman as her running mate. “Instead I chose a West River rancher,” she said, as she thanked Rhoden and his wife, Sandy.

“It was for his faith, and for his family, for his integrity, his character and his strength,” Noem said about the long-time former legislator. “He had been a friend of mine for many, many years, and I saw him, no matter what, if he was on one side of an issue because it was the right side, because it was the side that was going to benefit South Dakota for the next several generations, and it was important to him, important enough to dig in. He has been my friend for many, many years and I’ve just been so blessed that he’s been my partner in doing this job.”

Noem recalled for the several hundred delegates the “incredible challenges” her administration faced during the past three-plus years, from the bomb cyclone in 2019 to the pandemic that arrived in early 2020, followed by a derecho and other storms.

“I just want to thank Larry. He has been advisor to me on every single issue and my first phone call is to him to get his insight, his institutional knowledge of South Dakota, it’s been a gift to us. He presides over the Senate with integrity and process and is fair, and he not only has done that, he’s taken on extra duties and spent extra time serving the people of South Dakota because he loves this state,” she said.

Haugaard was the presiding officer in the other chamber as House speaker when the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Dakota in the late winter and early spring of 2020. On March 30, 2020, Noem’s administration brought 11 pieces of new legislation to handle on the final day of the regular session, which was conducted remotely through technology links to most members because of COVID. One of the bills Noem wanted would have given more authority to the state Department of Health to close places where people gathered such as businesses, schools and parks, but the House refused to pass it.

That same night, Rhoden was as at a gathering at a lobbyist’s house where the Senate’s two top members, president pro tem Brock Greenfield of Clark and Republican leader Kris Langer of Dell Rapids, were drinking and returned to the Capitol to conduct further business. Greenfield and Langer were later formally admonished.

Greenfield doesn’t have a challenger today for the Republican nomination today for state school and public lands commissioner, while the lawyer who defended the two, former Attorney General Marty Jackley, is seeking the Republican nomination this morning for his former job.

Noem meanwhile has repeatedly claimed she never shut down anything during the pandemic and touts South Dakota’s economy as tops in the nation. But her tone had been much more defensive and much less bold early in the pandemic.

Two years ago, she issued a series of executive orders at the start of the pandemic, declaring a state of emergency on March 13, 2020. That same day, she ordered non-essential employees of state government to work remotely. And on April 6, 2020, Noem told people in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties — the greater Sioux Falls area — by an executive order what they should or shouldn’t do.

Months later, after Congress rolled out billions of dollars in federal aid to state governments across the nation for governors to administrate, Haugaard pushed for an October special session of the Legislature so that lawmakers could have some voice in how Noem was spreading COVID-relief money across South Dakota’s economy. Lawmakers eventually passed a resolution recommending how she spend the remaining half of the $1.25 billion.

Haugaard wanted to make those points this year during his campaign against Noem for the Republican nomination. That was one of the reasons why Noem wouldn’t face Haugaard publicly; another was that she was leading him by a wide margin and saw only risk if she agreed to a public appearance.

She instead stayed within the much-safer cocoon of county Republican Lincoln Day dinners. Those smaller events often featured entire fields of local and statewide Republican candidates in line to make quick five- or 10-minute pitches that generally received little or no attention from news organizations.

At the same time, Noem was flying to other states to speak at Republican fundraisers, where the governor collected contributions to her re-election account while promoting her message that she never shut down South Dakota while bashing Democrat U.S. President Joe Biden and praising Republican former President Donald Trump, and in the process raising her national profile.

The feud eventually split the South Dakota House’s 62 Republicans this year and at times saw key issues decided by which side the eight Democrats chose to take.

Noem also pushed for the resignation of Republican Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg after a September 12, 2020, crash that killed pedestrian Joe Boever. The House impeached Ravnsborg on April 12 and the Senate removed him Tuesday.

Along the way, the House special committee investigating the matter issued a cease and desist letter to Noem and her administration over its interference. All six Republican members of the committee including Haugaard voted against impeaching Ravnsborg.