CASTLEWOOD, S.D. - From the outside looking in, Kristi Noem appears as nontraditional as budding political stars come.
The farmer and rancher dropped out of college after her father was killed in a freak mishap. Married at age 20, she forged ahead and built a successful ranching business in the small community of Castlewood, population 666.
She went on to serve four years in the South Dakota House of Representatives before emerging from a crowded South Dakota Republican Party primary in 2010 to unseat South Dakota's lone member of Congress -- political stalwart Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
A darling of the tea party movement, Noem, now 39, will be sworn into the U.S. House on Wednesday as a Freshmen Leadership Representative and a member of the Natural Resources and Education and Labor committees. Her striking appearance and charisma have already made many fans and drawn inevitable comparisons to former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Yet, those who know Noem and South Dakota say the traits that draw the curious eye of the media and national political establishment are the same characteristics that make her a traditional South Dakotan.
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"She is in so many ways a typical South Dakotan -- raised on a farm, is entrepreneurial and independent," said South Dakota State University political science professor Gary Aguiar, who in addition to being an expert on South Dakota politics is Noem's academic adviser as she pursues a political science degree as a "nontraditional student."
"So I think her life story is, as they say, a compelling personal narrative."
‘Zero name I.D.'
Noem was born in Watertown, S.D., and was raised and worked on her family farm in rural Hamlin County. Like Palin, Noem become known around the region for her hunting skills. She graduated from Hamlin High School in 1990 and married Bryon Noem at age 20 while taking classes at Northern State University.
Then, tragedy struck.
Her father, Ron Arnold, was working on the family farm on March 10, 1994, when he was sucked into a grain bin. His sudden death devastated the family. Noem, eight months pregnant, dropped out of Northern State and took over the family farm.
In addition to running the family business, Noem served on various agricultural boards before being elected to the South Dakota House in 2006. She won re-election in 2008.
"I'm pretty much the first one in my family that has been involved in public service or has run for office before," Noem told the Journal. "We've served on local boards and things of that nature, but nothing like the state Legislature or at the federal level."
In the South Dakota House, she was a popular figure, picked by fellow lawmakers as one of the most popular state legislators regardless of party. She served as the assistant majority leader.
State Rep. Val Rausch, a Republican from Big Stone City, near Castlewood, said Noem did well in the House by focusing on issues related to agriculture and property rights.
"She is a striking individual, so you notice her right away. I've liked her from day one. She was willing to take on the steep learning curve and get right after it," Rausch said.
But she was still a relative unknown when she entered the Republican Party primary field in mid-January. Secretary of State Chris Nelson and moderate state Rep. Blake Curd held advantages in name recognition and funds, and both were widely viewed as better equipped to take on incumbent Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin.
"I entered the race in February, we had a three-way primary, but I would say a lot of the people who are very involved in politics told me I didn't have a chance," Noem said. "They said, 'You are getting in way too late, you don't have enough money.'"
The political landscape, however, changed quickly. Noem proved a formidable opponent, raising money and quickly moving up in the polls.
On June 8, she won the primary with 42 percent of the vote. Nelson was second, with 35 percent, followed by Curd, with 23 percent.
"I kind of marveled at that, because I had almost zero name I.D., so the people in South Dakota almost didn't know who I was," Noem said. "So I had to work hard to make sure they found out enough so I could win that primary."
Aguiar said Noem's attitude does well in connecting with South Dakotans.
"She is personable and just a neat person, has that sort of aura around her that you see around some people," Aguiar said.
'Fit with times'
Beating Herseth Sandlin, however, would be no easy task.
The three-term "Blue Dog" congresswoman was the quintessential insider, well-connected both in South Dakota and in the Democratic Party. Her grandfather Ralph Herseth served as governor in South Dakota. Grandmother Lorna Herseth was secretary of state, and her father, Lars Herseth, served in the state Legislature for two decades.
She received undergraduate, graduate and law degrees from prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and taught at the Georgetown University Law Center.
In 2007, she married former four-term Texas congressman Max Sandlin. In May 2008, the New York Times published an article with the headline "She just might be president some day."
Yet, it became apparent early that Noem would give the incumbent fits. Early polling indicated a tight race, and those sympathetic to the tea party latched on to the relative neophyte. The popular website The Drudge Report in October declared about Noem "another Republican star is born" after she raised $1.1 million in the final quarter of the campaign.
But Rausch said it was Noem's personable campaign style and no-nonsense approach to the issues that captured voters' attention. And those same constituents responded to the rags-to-riches element of Noem's personal story.
"She is herself. People just like people who seem genuine. I think that is one of her best qualities," Rausch said. "She'll admit if she's done something crazy or stupid, but never apologizes for 100 percent effort. People like that."
Despite being dogged by a past that included some 20 speeding tickets and two warrants for her arrest for failing to appear in court, Noem rode pervasive national discontent with Democratic leadership to a general election victory over Herseth Sandlin.
Rausch said Noem's "conservative nature" was evident to voters.
"Her back-to-basics, rural South Dakota values, conservative business mentality, pro-life, all those things really resonate pretty strongly and, obviously, they did with a good number of South Dakotans," Rausch said.
Aguiar said Noem was particularly popular with those sympathetic to the tea party crowd.
"She fit with the times. There was a lot of disgruntlement with what we might consider to be big government or government more intrusive in our lives," Aguiar said.
‘A different person''
Noem's primary and general election victories delivered her to a whole new political stratosphere. But even with all the acclaim, Noem isn't sure how long she'll actually serve in the U.S. House.
Noem told the Journal she sees a value in term limits and said the length of her service will depend on how well her family handles her time in Washington. While Noem performs duties from Tuesday through Thursday in D.C. and takes distance learning classes at SDSU to finish her degree, her family, including husband Bryon and three children, will stay home, awaiting her return to the Castlewood ranch.
"I'm not sure how long I'll be there. We decided when we ran that we serve and see how our family did and adapted to the changes. And if it wasn't working for our family at any point in time, I wouldn't run again. So I haven't thought any farther than knowing I've got two years in Washington to make some real changes and do all I can to help South Dakota," Noem said.
She knows she's in for a dramatically different life come January, which is why Noem wants to get back to South Dakota as much as possible, even if it means a lot of flights in and out of Sioux Falls or Watertown.
She said as South Dakota's sole member of the House, her three goals all involve addressing fiscal matters -- cutting spending, balancing the federal budget and paring down the $13 trillion in debt.
She and Rep.-elect Tim Scott, R-S.C., were named as Freshmen Leadership Representatives, a new position for 2011. Noem said the big task for 2011 is for Republicans like herself to deliver on the campaign pledges they made in 2010. She said she intends to do just that.
But as political adversaries are quick to point out, she is replacing a politician known for working across party lines.
Maggie Gillespie, a Hudson, S.D., Democrat who served two years with Noem, said she hopes Noem remembers that Americans like bipartisanship.
"I certainly think she's got big shoes to fill with the mark left by Stephanie Herseth," Gillespie said. "She's in a position to try to continue that tradition, to try to bring people together. I hope she'll go down that (bipartisan) road."
The comparisons to Palin don't necessarily bode well for bipartisanship, but those comparisons, while flattering, aren't exactly accurate, Noem maintains.
"It takes a lot of courage to step into the political ring, it really does, and (Palin) has been willing to be a public servant, she's balanced it with her family. She's been willing to have some courage to speak out on principles she believes in," Noem said. "But I am a different person. I would prefer that people in South Dakota would define me as, ‘That's Kristi, she's one of us.' That would mean a lot more to me, as far as somebody trying to put a label on me."