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PIERRE, S.D. - Since the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem's hands-off approach has elevated her national profile and heightened her approval within the state.

She's also known as a close ally of former President Donald Trump — even hosting a 2020 4th of July fireworks show at Mount Rushmore with him — and received his endorsement for governor earlier this year.

But given Noem's history, her Republican challenger, former Speaker of the state House Steve Haugaard, sees an opening in the race.

In the 2018 primary for governor, Noem just narrowly defeated Republican Marty Jackley. And in the general election, she won 51% of the vote to Democrat Bille Sutton's 48%.

"The governor has been there now for nearly four years and problems aren't being solved," Haugaard says. "We see some bandaids. We see some knee-jerk reactions, but we don't see comprehensive solutions to problems."

The Noem campaign has hardly engaged Haugaard during the primary. The two haven't debated.

"We've got an incumbent governor who is extremely popular within her own party," says Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen.

"But also, the way she's governed and the way she comports herself has created a portion of that party that is frustrated with her. Steve Haugaard is the voice of that frustration."

South Dakota Trump adversary

Across the state, candidates for statewide office – from Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, to U.S. Sen. John Thune and Gov. Kristi Noem – are polling well above their challengers.

Thune, who's viewed as next in line to succeed Mitch McConnell in the Senate, was widely speculated to be considering retirement. Quashing rumors, he made his reelection bid announcement in January.

"I'm a right-of-center conservative. I think the country is there. They don't always vote that way, but I think the country still looks for right-of-center conservative solutions to problems," Thune says.

During Trump's attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Thune said the efforts were "going down like a shot dog."

Trump lashed out at Thune on Twitter: "RINO John Thune, 'Mitch's boy', should just let it play out. South Dakota doesn't like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!"

Thune is well established in South Dakota. It would be a stretch to say his political career is over, but recent polls tell conflicting stories about his popularity among voters.

A recent Morning Consult poll shows Thune as one of America's most popular U.S. senators. However, polling by South Dakota State University shows Thune's favorability among likely Republican primary voters is at 46%.

The poll also shows both of his challengers are polling under 10% with the other 41% undecided. That could show venerability as he seeks a fourth term, which hasn't been done since Karl Mundt in 1966. Thune unseated Tom Daschle in 2004, who was the Democratic majority leader at the time.

There are no statewide Democratic primary races this year.

Also on the ballot: an early attempt to stop Medicaid expansion

Primary voters in the state are also being asked to weigh in on a ballot question that's being pushed by Republican lawmakers to make passing Medicaid expansion in the fall more difficult.

Voters will decide whether to require a 60% threshold for ballot questions that spend $10 million in the first five years, or raise taxes. The idea was brought by Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen.

He says the threshold mirrors similar requirements lawmakers have when spending money or raising taxes.

"It's a measure that requires just a little more agreement among the voters. Puts the taxpayers in just a little bit more control when it comes to raising taxes and big government spending," Hanson says.

The question was originally slated for the 2022 general election, but Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck moved it up to the primary election.

"I put it there because I want it to be in place — if the voters approve it — for the general election that's going to happen because we're going to have Medicaid expansion there," Schoenbeck said during a candidate debate in Watertown.

"I don't happen to support more welfare. I want to have a higher threshold for when we vote on that in November. That's why it's on the primary ballot. There's no other reason."

Critics of the move call it an "underhanded trick" by the Republican-dominated state legislature.

Medicaid expansion would expand healthcare access to about 42,500 working South Dakotans. It would cost the state roughly $33 million each year in the first five years.

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