Democrats had a split focus at their state party dinner Saturday night — celebrating the past service of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson and the recently deceased George McGovern, and hope for the upcoming 2014 elections.
The annual McGovern Day Dinner in Sioux Falls included a video tribute to McGovern, the former senator and presidential candidate and namesake of the dinner who died last October. Party chair Ben Nesselhuf termed him the “founder of our party” for his work rebuilding an almost non-existent Democratic Party in the 1950s, while Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether discussed lessons he had learned from McGovern.
There was also a valedictory speech from Johnson, who announced his retirement from the Senate last month. Johnson shied away from politics but thanked his friends and supporters in the audience.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for making us feel like the luckiest people in America,” Johnson said.
Other speakers focused on the politics. In an unscheduled speech, Democratic strategist Steve Jarding gave a fiery speech blasting Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other state Republican leaders for their policies with regard to education, economic development and the environment.
“Let’s take this thing back, let’s win the governor’s race next year, and let’s make South Dakota strong again,” said Jarding.
With the party looking to defend Johnson’s U.S. Senate seat, the dinner’s keynote speaker was a senator many South Dakota Democrats hope to emulate — Heidi Heitkamp, who won an upset victory in North Dakota last year.
Heitkamp told attendees that a combination of hard work and passion was the key to winning in a Republican state.
“No stone was left unturned, because we knew it was going to be that close,” she said.
So far Democrats have no announced candidates for Senate, governor or U.S. House in 2014, though several names are rumored and Heitkamp told the crowd “you know who they are.”
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, a rumored Senate candidate, was not present. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin introduced Heitkamp, but didn’t discuss the 2014 race in her remarks.