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So this is what passes for ‘unity’ in the Trump era

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So this is what passes for ‘unity’ in the Trump era

Sep 16, 2023 | 3:00 pm ET
By Dana Hess
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So this is what passes for ‘unity’ in the Trump era
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Gov. Kristi Noem greets former President Donald Trump at a rally Sept. 8, 2023, at The Monument in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

There was a time in 2004 when South Dakota Democrats had plenty to celebrate. This was back in the days before South Dakota politics was awash in red. It was likely even before the days when anyone would characterize states as red or blue. On the national level, there was a short time when South Dakota Democrats were kind of a big deal.

In June of 2004, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won a special election to serve out the remaining U.S. House term of Bill Janklow. In November of that year, Sen. Tom Daschle’s reelection efforts would be upset by John Thune. But for a few months, Herseth Sandlin, Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson provided South Dakota with a fully Democratic congressional delegation.

Imagine, at some time between June and November, a statewide gathering of Democrats to celebrate their congressional trifecta. Imagine bad weather or the press of work keeping the Democratic delegation from attending the fictional celebration in South Dakota. In their place, their photo is shown to the celebrants. Technology in 2004, as well Democratic Party finances, dictate that we imagine the photos are displayed by an overhead projector.

Trump rally highlights Republican division with booing of absent Thune, Rounds, Johnson

Imagine the three smiling faces ready to work for South Dakotans and strive against the conservative policies of President George W. Bush. Now, since the congressional delegation failed to show up, when their photo is shown to those in attendance, imagine them booing.

While our scenario is fictional, a similar situation took place this month when Donald Trump headlined what was billed as a Republican Party unity rally in Rapid City. When photos of Sens. Thune, Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson were shown to 7,000 party faithful, they booed. Gov. Kristi Noem, without naming names, called out Republicans who didn’t make the trip to Rapid City to pay homage to Trump, who has a substantial lead in Republican primary polling.

The three had been present in 2020 when Noem hosted then-President Trump for a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore. It’s one thing, however, to honor President Trump and quite another to show support for candidate Trump. For Noem, that was a distinction without a difference.

“They didn’t even show up tonight to welcome a former president of the United States to South Dakota,” Noem was quoted in a South Dakota Searchlight story, without bothering to name those who didn’t show up.

Despite the crowd reaction to their failure to bend the knee to Trump, South Dakota’s Republican congressional delegation really had no choice but to hastily arrange some scheduling conflicts that would keep them way from Rapid City and the man who leads the league in indictments.

Rounds and Thune have thrown their support in the Republican primary to the long shot candidacy of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. If they had been at the Rapid City event, some people, like me, would have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of backing one candidate while seeming to curry favor with another.

Dusty Johnson has vowed not to endorse a presidential candidate during the primary. His presence in Rapid City would have been a tacit, if silent, endorsement of Trump. A situation that some people, probably me, would be quick to point out.

Maybe the catcalls aimed at the delegation will just be so much hot air. However, despite their good reasons for staying away from the rally and Trump, it’s likely that Rounds, Thune and Johnson could pay some sort of political price for their absence. There’s no way to imagine that qualifies as party unity.