Republicans need to set aside their divisions as the nation faces previously unknown challenges during the pandemic, the second-highest state official said Saturday.
Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden spoke at the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Yankton. The Yankton County Republicans sponsored the annual fundraiser and campaign rally, but attendees also came from surrounding counties.
Gov. Kristi Noem has often stood alone in her handling of the pandemic, Rhoden told the Press & Dakotan.
“The governor is getting it from the left, which we expected, but also from the right,” he said. “She has often had to make difficult decisions. She not only has had to stand up to the left but also her own supporters.”
Rhoden shared those difficult decisions during Saturday’s address at the GOP dinner. He said he holds a unique perspective working alongside Noem, who has received the national spotlight for her handling of the pandemic and her stances on other issues.
Noem did not attend Saturday’s dinner, but Rhoden spoke at length about their administration and its record.
“As we worked through this pandemic during the last year and a half, it has been very difficult,” he said. “But it’s also been great to work side by side with Gov. Noem. I can say this with all sincerity: Gov. Noem has earned her stripes.”
During the early days of the pandemic, South Dakota leaders were part of conference calls twice a day — sometimes hours long — every day, Rhoden said.
“The decisions the governor had to make came 24 hours a day,” he said.
Noem took a mostly hands-off approach when it came to government regulations in the pandemic, and those decisions set her apart from other governors, Rhoden said.
“She was on an island by herself. She decided not to do shelter in place, not to close business, and she didn’t define essential businesses,” he said. “She did that on the bedrock principles — the belief that our rights aren’t granted to us by government but by God and endowed by the Creator who gave us those rights.”
South Dakota stood alone in many regards, Rhoden said.
“We felt other governors would join in, but they didn’t. The governor stood strong on those principles,” he said. “She understood the fundamental strength of personal responsibility. She trusted that the people of the state would take their personal responsibility and make the most of it, and they did.”
One national commentator was grateful for Noem’s example for the rest of the nation, Rhoden said.
“I think it’s rare to see that kind of courage, and I think Governor Noem is the strongest person I know,” the lieutenant governor added. “She is a shining example of what we have.”
South Dakota has come through the pandemic with the strongest economy in the nation, Rhoden said. He pointed to the state’s unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the country, and the state’s growth of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at an annual rate of 9.9% in the fourth quarter of 2020.
“Many times, South Dakota is seen as a small state. But (Noem) has said, because South Dakota is small, we’re nimble and can do things that other states can’t do, especially with our Republican leadership,” Rhoden said.
“We can lead the nation by example. This past year, we have given the results to promote the Republican values that this nation needs.”
However, Rhoden has also seen divisions both at the state and national level among conservative and moderate GOP members.
“In more recent months, we have seen others casting doubt and throwing out terms like RINOs (Republicans In Name Only),” he said.
However, those labeled RINOs have produced policies and legislation that have created economic and other success while following GOP principles, he said.
“We are talking about Republicans topping the habit of putting prefixes on the name Republicans. We need to unite,” he said.
“We have a common real threat to our country right now, and it’s the Biden administration, and it’s the liberals who are destroying our nation. We as Republicans need to unite and put our divisions behind us and, once and for all, get a dose of the big picture of working together for a common goal.”
The evening featured short remarks by a number of federal, state and local officeholders and candidates.
Former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley spoke about his decision to make another run for his former position, challenging GOP incumbent Jason Ravnsborg of Yankton.
Ravnsborg did not attend Saturday’s dinner.
Jackley, who lost to Noem in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, returned to his law practice. However, he said he misses public service.
“I love working with law enforcement and protecting the public and defending your constitutional rights,” he said. “It also comes down to relationships.”
Jackley spoke of the support he has received from sheriffs and state’s attorneys across South Dakota.
He echoed those themes during a Press & Dakotan interview prior to the dinner. He added that he wants to continue his battle against substance abuse in the state, working with prevention and treatment rather than just prosecution.
Jackley said his past role in the AG’s office will serve him well, and he plans to make that the focus of his campaign.
“I know the office, and I know what I’m getting into. It makes me work all the harder to get back into office,” he said. “My plan is to talk about my experience and talk about my vision and why I want to return as AG in 2022.”
Jackley said he viewed Saturday’s dinner as his opportunity to say thanks to his Yankton County supporters. Also, many of those same people may be state convention delegates who will decide the GOP nominees for attorney general and other state constitutional offices, he noted.
“The Republican convention in June is right around the corner. It’s why these Lincoln Day dinners are so important,” he said.
“It’s a way to meet with these county supporters and listen to what they want for their attorney general and what they are looking for.”
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