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LAWRENCE: GOP heads to election in a house divided

The dual nature of the South Dakota Republican Party was on display Thursday during the Davison-Hanson County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner.

There's the Main Street side of the party, pro-business, pro-growth and pro-government. It has long ruled South Dakota and likes that. A lot. It intends to remain in power, electing governors and controlling the Legislature.

Then there are the tea party Republicans, the folks who believe the other Republicans are in league with the devil and Democrats, and aren't sure which is worse.

They believe the state party is being led by people who ignore the bedrock principles of the GOP, and don't abide by the planks in the state platform.

They want to win elections, but not if they have to compromise their deeply held beliefs.

Dusty Johnson, a Mitchell resident, was the featured speaker, and a member of the traditional GOP. He drew loud applause before and after his typically wry, graceful speech.

State Rep. Stace Nelson is very different from Johnson, and not just in size.

Nelson is a huge man, over 6-5 and broad of beam, while Johnson fittingly compared himself to Barney Fife during his speech.

Nelson runs hot, his passion always on display, while Johnson is cool as a spring morning.

That was clear during Johnson's speech. Nelson stood up and walked to the back of the room, chatting with a couple people and pointedly ignoring Johnson's words.

At one point, Nelson left the room, only to return and sit down as Johnson finished his speech.

But don't think Nelson is an outsider here. He spoke for only a few minutes, but he received a louder ovation than Johnson did.

Nelson battled legislative Republican leaders during the 2012 session, and said he has been targeted for defeat by those GOP powers. But he seems to have a strong base of support locally.

Another speaker drew modest applause, and was clearly agitated as he returned to his seat.

Steve Sibson's speech had been edited before he was allowed to speak, he told me, and he later gave me a copy of the speech with the words that he was not allowed to say.

Sibson is challenging state Sen. Mike Vehle in the District 20 GOP primary. In his prepared remarks, he said Vehle received "his marching orders from the globalists" and worked for "corporate socialists" who are allied with "the Democrats' Marxist socialists."

Sibson said he was told he could speak as long as he did not mention Vehle, and he was also told not to bash Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"I wanted so badly to tell you the truth, but I'm not allowed to," he said as he wrapped up his speech.

Earlier, Vehle had made a brief speech and had stressed Republican unity. "We have to keep a Republican majority in the Legislature," he said. "It's critical." Vehle also had high praise for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. "He's a governor who listens," he said. Sibson, of course, has a completely different take on Daugaard. He's not a fan.

There are signs of the GOP split across the state, with several Republican legislators facing primary challenges.

Even Rep. Kristi Noem, a freshman Republican who rose from the Legislature to a seat in Congress, isn't conservative enough for some in South Dakota.

They support Stephanie Strong, a Rapid City woman who tried to get on the GOP primary ballot against Noem and, after her petitions were determined to be a few names short, asked a judge to put her on the ballot.

If that fails, which seems very likely after Strong missed a hearing last week, she has vowed to be on the ballot this fall as an independent to give conservatives another option.

Republican incumbents across the country are seeing primary challenges from conservatives who feel the elected leaders are out of touch with the party faithful.

In some ways, it's hard to believe the South Dakota GOP can continue to thrive with its house divided, to borrow a line from its most revered figure, Abraham Lincoln.

Vehle and Sibson sat far apart during the dinner in the Mitchell Wesleyan Church Fellowship Hall. Their physical separation was a fitting symbol of a party that has a deep divide.

Will it make a difference in November? Most Republicans are betting the wounds will be healed by fall and the GOP candidates will focus on an old enemy: the Democrats.

I still wouldn't invite Vehle and Sibson to the same dinner party, however.