PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Noem administration sent one person to Idaho last week for the annual summer meeting of the Western Governors Association. Meanwhile Governor Kristi Noem spent those same days in Washington, D.C., speaking to conservative audiences as a possible Republican candidate for U.S. president or vice president and holding book-signings for her new political memoir.

The South Dakota governor’s trip to the nation’s capital included a July 27 conversation with Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts; a July 28 speech at the Young America’s Foundation 44th annual National Conservative Student Conference; and an interview for the CBS News podcast The Takeout that included questions about her national ambition.

That Noem, who served eight years as South Dakota’s one member in the U.S. House of Representatives before her 2018 election as governor, chose to go to Washington, D.C., rather than sit down with other governors at a WGA annual meeting represents a shift from South Dakota’s previous chief executive.

Republican Dennis Daugaard regularly participated in WGA events during his time as governor, from 2011 through 2018, and rose to be WGA chairman during his last 18 months in office. He brought the 2018 annual summer meeting to Rapid City.

That summer Daugaard made a statement that remains on the WGA website four years later: “The Western Governors’ Association is special because it’s a non-partisan organization that actually gets things done. It provides opportunities for non-political conversations about the issues western states have in common – issues like transportation, trade, energy, and workforce – and those conversations result in action,” he said.

WGA has 19 states and three U.S. territories as members, but the summer and winter meetings haven’t proven to be consistent draws. Noem’s record reflects that. She was among 12 governors who attended the 2019 summer meeting in Vail, Colorado, and the 11 who went to the 2019 winter meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. There was no 2020 summer meeting because of COVID-19; the 2020 winter meeting was held virtually.

Noem was among 16 governors who took part in the 2021 summer meeting that also was virtual. When the in-person gatherings resumed last December, she didn’t go to the 2021 winter meeting in Coronado, California. It drew eight governors and included a roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous people.

Eleven governors attended the recent 2022 WGA summer meeting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Noem wasn’t one of them. The July 26-28 event featured presentations from several members of Democrat U.S. President Joe Biden’s cabinet, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as the chief of the U.S. Forest Service and other Biden administration officials.

Noem, whose campaign for governor four years ago featured a fundraising visit by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, and who hosted Trump at a July 2020 fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, has been a persistent critic of Biden’s Democratic administration. On Monday, her re-election campaign announced a website attacking her Democrat opponent, state Representative Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls, for supporting Biden. But her campaign tempered the partisan edge with a feel-good TV ad featuring Noem’s mother, Corrine Arnold.

That rhythm continued Tuesday, as the governor’s office announced that Biden had granted a presidential disaster declaration for a June storm in Butte, Haakon, Jackson, Jones, McPherson, and Spink counties. But the same day, her campaign sent supporters a fund-raising email criticizing Biden on the economy — the subject line read, ‘What A Joke’ — and saying about her opponent: “In fact, the leftists on both coasts are doing all they can to bring Biden’s failed policies to South Dakota in the form of my opponent, Jamie Smith.” Then on Thursday, her state office issued a news release with other Republican governors criticizing the budget priorities of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Noem has taken the side of a winner in Trump, who has been popular among South Dakota voters. He defeated Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 for the presidency; South Dakotans cast 227,721 ballots for Trump and 117,458 for Clinton. In 2020, Trump lost the presidency to Biden, but South Dakota voters still favored Trump 261,043 to Biden 150,471. Trump’s split from his vice president, Mike Pence, on January 6, 2021, means that Trump needs a new running mate should he run again in 2024 and win the GOP nomination.

Noem told South Dakota reporters on November 22, 2021, that she had “zero plans” to run for U.S. president. While in Washington, D.C., last week, she told CBS News correspondent Major Garrett she wouldn’t rule it out if Trump doesn’t run again. TV ads for her recently aired in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three states at the front of the nominating process for presidential candidates, a point that Garrett raised in the interview. He asked whether America was ready to elect a woman as president.

“Oh, I think they’re ready,” Noem said.

Neither Noem’s campaign spokesman nor her state office has responded to questions this week about why she chose the trip to Washington, D.C., over the WGA meeting. During the Republican primary election, Noem refused invitations from news media organizations, including KELOLAND News, to debate or make a joint appearance with her challenger, Representative Steve Haugaard of Sioux Falls. Her campaign has agreed to debate Smith once this fall and has turned down or not responded to other requests.

None of this surprises Smith. “It’s more of the same,” he told KELOLAND News on Thursday. He said Noem has focused more on herself than on South Dakota, and that Daugaard understood western states could try to solve larger common problems by working together.

As for the attack website, Noem used the same technique in 2018 against Democrat Billie Sutton, tying him to Democratic U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Noem defeated Sutton 171,912 to 161,454.

“She has to understand, and she might not understand, she’s running in South Dakota against Jamie Smith,” Smith said about Noem. He said her attack site suggests there must be some sort of fear on her part and that their race is “tighter than she thought it was going to be.”

South Dakota voters haven’t elected a Democrat as governor since Dick Kneip won a third term in 1974. Smith is the latest to try to break that streak. “My whole being is to help other people and not to promote myself,” he said.