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South Dakota Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden
Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, speaking at a town hall meeting in Mitchell, would likely assume more responsibilities if Gov. Noem were picked as Donald Trump’s running mate. But Noem insisted that “I still get to be governor” during the prospective campaign. (Photo: Stu Whitney / Argus Leader)

Noem: “If I’m nominated, I still get to be Governor.”

MITCHELL, S.D. – Standing next to a row of bookcases in the Mitchell High School library, South Dakota’s lieutenant governor was asked about taking the reins of state government.

It’s a sensitive subject for Larry Rhoden, who has embraced his supporting role as Gov. Kristi Noem’s second-in-command since entering office in 2019 following 16 years in the state legislature.

“I try not to bring it up,” said the Union Center rancher when asked by News Watch about how his duties might change if Noem is chosen as Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee on the Republican ticket. “I don’t want to make it look like I’m thinking about it.”

Despite that political prudence, the subject is hard to avoid.

Noem is listed as the betting favorite to become Trump’s running mate for 2024 over fellow contenders such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott; New York Rep. Elise Stefanik; former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Rhoden surmised that the selection process will accelerate now that Trump has wrapped up the nomination and is looking ahead to the July 15-18 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Noem didn’t dodge the topic at a March 13 town hall that she and Rhoden attended in Mitchell. The event saw her sign two education-related bills while mingling with state legislators, staffers and residents, some of whom grilled her on landowner rights while others queried her on the VP sweepstakes.

The 52-year-old governor confirmed that she met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida recently to discuss the possibility of her joining the ticket, adding that she is committed to helping Trump defeat Democratic President Joe Biden on Nov. 5.

“My answer used to be that President Trump and I have never talked about it, but now we have talked about it,” Noem said during the town hall. “What I told him is that I will do whatever it takes for me to help him win. Of course, I’d rather stay with all of you if you’ll keep me. This is my favorite job. I love this job.”

If she is chosen to run for VP, News Watch asked Noem, will she formally delegate authority to Rhoden during the time she is campaigning nearly full-time away from South Dakota? She responded that no such transfer of power will occur.

“If I’m nominated, I still get to be governor,” Noem said. “So you keep me until I’m not governor. People who know me will tell you that I don’t sleep very well. The lieutenant governor is my partner and he helps me with a lot of stuff, but I will still be the governor and I will still be making the decisions.”

The answer may not be as clear as Noem suggests.

While speculation has swirled around her joining Trump’s ticket, there has been less examination of what happens to state government if the chief executive is away from South Dakota for long stretches running for national office.

When South Dakota U.S. Sen. George McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, he remained in office during his campaign, which resulted in a landslide defeat to Republican incumbent President Richard Nixon. McGovern was re-elected to the Senate in 1974 despite being labeled a “part-time senator” by his opponent in a closer-than-expected race.

Running for national office as a governor is different, not only because of differing job descriptions but also due to the boundaries of state law.

The South Dakota Constitution, in Article 4, Section 6, states that when the governor is “unable to serve by reason of continuous absence from the state, or other temporary disability, the executive power shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor for the residue of the term or until the disability is removed.”

Like other constitutional interpretations, the assessment of Noem’s “continuous absence” will likely hinge on how much political pressure is exerted upon her to hand over day-to-day operations during a rigorous presidential campaign.

Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls, a member of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, told News Watch that the governor should resign her office if she is chosen to run for vice president.

“South Dakota taxpayers should not be footing the bill for her travel around the country, especially since she provides little to no transparency about her state airplane use and security-related costs while in office,” Nesiba said.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, noted that Noem has already weathered her share of controversy about pursuing a national political profile away from South Dakota on the heels of her hands-off handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which endeared her to some conservatives.

“It probably comes down to how much grief she wants to get, but this is not new territory for her,” Schaff said. “(The presidential campaign) wouldn’t be during the legislative session, and state government has a certain inertia that allows things to keep running.”

State Rep. Tony Venhuizen, a Sioux Falls Republican and former chief of staff to Noem and former Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said the “continuous absence” clause in the state constitution was necessary before the advent of smartphones and Zoom meetings.

Of course, there are also only so many hours in the day.

“There are a lot of things you can do remotely, but there are time considerations,” said Venhuizen, who attended the town hall in Mitchell. “I think most people understand that if you’re running for vice president, you’re going to be on the road a lot. There would have to be some practical considerations of who’s covering some of the duties and when.”

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