Kristi Noem for vice president? Trump supporters in Iowa think it's 'awesome'

South Dakota's governor has not been shy about campaigning for a spot on the ticket. As of right now, she's the betting favorite, and she had plenty of fans at the caucuses.

Kristi Noem for vice president? Trump supporters in Iowa think it's 'awesome'
While running for governor, Kristi Noem was joined by then-President Donald Trump for a Sioux Falls, S.D., fundraising event in 2018. Now she's a possible vice presidential choice. (Photo: Argus Leader)

ROCK VALLEY, Iowa – Waiting in line for the sign-up table at his Iowa Caucus precinct on Monday night, Donavan Wallenburg was asked by a reporter if he’s a Trump supporter.

“What gave it away?” said the 43-year-old with a smirk, turning to reveal the back of his sweatshirt, which read: "JESUS IS MY SAVIOR. TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT."

Wallenburg, who owns a trucking business, was hardly alone in his support of the former Republican president and 2024 primary frontrunner in this northwest Iowa community, about 15 miles from the South Dakota border in Sioux County.

Rock Valley, hometown of former University of South Dakota and current Miami Dolphins linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, is known for football, farming and Christian conservative politics, not necessarily in that order. Voters here helped Trump carry 51% of the statewide vote Monday in a record-setting Iowa Caucus performance for a Republican.

With a likely rematch looming in November against Democratic President Joe Biden, talk has turned to Trump’s choice for a running mate. Wallenburg, sporting a red “Trump 2024” baseball cap in the entrance to Rock Valley Community School, said his vice presidential preference would be South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

“She’s a proven leader, especially through COVID,” Wallenburg said. “I’m a business owner here in Iowa, but there were a lot of times I wished I would have been in South Dakota under what she had going on. She’s also for farmers and the Second Amendment. She’s awesome.”

Donavan Wallenburg of Rock Valley, Iowa, is a business owner and Trump supporter who believes South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem would be a good vice presidential pick. “She’s a proven leader, especially through COVID,” Wallenburg said. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch

Noem currently the betting favorite

South Dakota's governor, who served as a Trump surrogate on the Iowa campaign trail and endorsed him at a Rapid City, S.D., event in September 2023, has not concealed her interest in joining the ticket.

She’s currently the betting favorite to get the nod from Trump, according to Noem is listed ahead of businessman and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy; U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson; and former United Nations Ambassador and presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who finished third in Iowa behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Political betting market also has Noem as the favorite.

Stefanik, the House GOP Conference chairwoman, is scheduled to campaign with Trump in New Hampshire this week, fueling speculation about her vice presidential prospects and her desire to be part of the ticket.

“I would be honored to serve in any capacity in a Trump administration,” she said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Source: List as of Jan. 17.

Trump said during a Fox News town hall on Jan. 10 that he knew who his VP pick was going to be, though his campaign walked that statement back the following day. He didn’t announce Mike Pence as a running mate until July 2016, but there are indications that the 2024 pick could emerge earlier, potentially cutting short Noem’s second term as South Dakota’s chief executive if she were chosen.

“She’s clearly positioned herself as a national figure in Republican circles and one who is a Trump loyalist to boot,” Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., told News Watch. “Given Trump’s history, the number of Republicans he can reasonably choose from is a little lower than normal because he’s alienated or openly criticized many Republican officeholders. I would be surprised if Noem wasn’t among the two or three finalists. From there, it’s a bit of a crap shoot.” 

Border security tops caucus concerns

The Rock Valley caucus site hosted three of the roughly 1,670 precincts sprinkled throughout Iowa in school gyms, cafeterias and churches. The Republican format features caucus captains making speeches about their candidate before blank slips of paper are provided for everyone to write down votes.

The Trump caucus captain in Rock Valley was 57-year-old David Honse, a Gulf War veteran and father of seven who took the auditorium stage after the Pledge of Allegiance. He praised Trump’s White House policies in contrast to Biden’s administration, particularly as they pertain to the Southern border, more than 1,000 miles from northwest Iowa.

“If you were to look around our nation right now, you could very easily understand and see that we are nowhere near as safe as we were in 2020,” said Honse. “The border is wide open. We are having trouble with rampant invasion in our southern states.”

Donald Trump won every county except one during the Iowa caucuses. Nikki Haley won Johnson County. Source:

An Associated Press poll found that roughly 4 in 10 Iowa caucus-goers cited immigration as the most important issue facing America, with the economy second. The poll also found that about 9 in 10 caucus-goers said they backed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an increase from 2016.

In her State of the State Address, Noem talked about visiting South Dakota National Guard troops at the border in September 2023 and seeing the "inhumanity of Biden’s failed policies."

Honse's speech was met with applause from an audience that mirrored the demographic profile of Sioux County, which is 86% white with nearly 20% of its residents 65 and older. Trump garnered 82.3% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, making it Biden’s second-worst Iowa county. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win here was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

Voters sign up and review literature at the Trump 2024 table during Iowa Caucus events at Rock Valley Community School on Monday evening, Jan. 15, 2024. The former president carried 51% of the statewide vote in a record-setting performance for a Republican. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch)

'Forthright in the freedoms of citizens'

After leaving the stage, Honse expressed his admiration for South Dakota's governor when asked about vice presidential options. He cited the state's laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, a narrative that Noem has carefully crafted as part of her freedom-focused national brand.

“I like the way that she was able to keep South Dakota open during COVID and her thoughts about how she has been very forthright in the freedoms of the citizens of her state," said Honse, who works for an agricultural wholesaler and is active in Rock Valley's American Legion. "I think that type of governance would be moved forward in her role as a vice president.”

Some South Dakota conservatives have questioned the validity of Noem’s libertarian credentials, noting that she closed schools in the spring of 2020 and proposed laws seeking more authority for state and county health officials to shutter businesses that violated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Honse, who also thinks former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson would make a good VP choice, acknowledged a degree of nuance to pandemic policies when comparing Noem's approach to that of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, an ally of DeSantis in the primary race.

"As a resident of Iowa, I do think that Noem did some things better than what our governor did, but that was a unique time for all parties involved," he said. "I think that we could have all done some things better and we could have done some things worse."

How important is a running mate?

There are varied opinions on the significance of running mates to presidential tickets.

David Honse of Rock Valley, a 57-year-old Gulf War veteran and father of seven, served as Donald Trump's caucus captain and spoke on his behalf before voting began. "The border is wide open," Honse told attendees. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch)

Schaff said that the essential rule is to “do no harm,” avoiding calamities such as South Dakota Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern selecting Sen. Thomas Eagleton in 1972 and then having to change course after reports emerged that Eagleton had undergone electroshock treatment for depression.

Sen. John McCain’s off-the-board choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to join the Republican ticket in 2008 is often cited as one of the reasons for his defeat to Barack Obama. George H.W. Bush, however, won in 1988 despite tabbing inexperienced and gaffe-prone Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate.

"Noem wouldn’t hurt Trump," said Schaff. "Of course, she is from an electorally unimportant state that will vote Trump anyway. So she doesn’t really gain him any particular electorate. But part of the job of the VP is to be an aggressive defender of the top of the ticket and play a bit of the 'pit bull' role."

Sioux County, Iowa, is 86% white with nearly 20% of its residents 65 and older. Donald Trump garnered 82.3% of vote in the 2020 presidential election, making it Biden’s second-worst Iowa county. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch)

Schaff believes Noem would be well-suited to that role on the campaign trail or on a debate stage with Vice President Kamala Harris. Others have mentioned Noem’s lack of experience with mainstream media and reliance on friendly conservative outlets, a far cry from the scrutiny that a national campaign would bring.

“She's well-spoken enough and comfortable in her own skin that she can take on that spokesperson or attack dog role quite easily," countered Schaff. "To that extent, she helps (the campaign). Clearly, though, this election will not hinge on Kristi Noem, or whomever is chosen, versus Kamala Harris."

'I'm just looking for a president'

Back in the hallway, Trump-supporting business owner Wallenburg spotted a message on a school poster that proclaimed “You’re as Unique as Snowflakes.”

“Wait … isn’t that political?” he said to no one in particular.

Asked about Noem again, he contrasted her with Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump cabinet member who is hoping to cut into Trump's lead in next week's New Hampshire Primary. Wallenburg sees Haley as too "weak" to handle the role of running mate.

“Noem is tough,” he said. “She doesn't allow people to push her around, and that's what Trump likes. So I could see Trump picking her and I hope that he does.”

Wallenburg said his business, 323 Trucking, thrived during the Trump administration. He then bought a NAPA Auto Parts franchise in Sioux Center in 2020, expanding the inventory and piping in Christian music to customers.

Campaign buttons, signs and shirts for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were still available at the end of the night at the Rock Valley caucus site. DeSantis finished second statewide, 30 points behind Donald Trump. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch)

“It didn't work under Biden, so I sold that business," he said.

As for Trump’s war of words with Reynolds, the Iowa governor, Wallenburg thinks the former president should tone it down a bit.

“He should probably be nicer to her," he said. "Trump’s not in it to make friends, but sometimes I wish he didn't say everything that he does. You know what, though? Just read my shirt. I’m not looking for a savior. I’m just looking for a president.”