South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, the featured speaker at the annual Kansas Republican Party Convention in Manhattan this weekend, called Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly “a mess” and criticized the Democratic leader’s handling of COVID-19 in the state.

Noem spoke to a room of mostly unmasked Republicans from across the state during the “Keep Kansas Red” dinner Saturday. Noem, whose name is being floated as a potential presidential candidate for 2024, said she disagreed with Kelly’s decision that effectively limited church attendance.

Early on in the pandemic, Kelly’s decided to limit all gatherings, including church services, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Noem described the order as an attempt to curb religious freedom in Kansas, and further accused Kelly of skewing information on COVID-19 cases.

“The public, the people in your communities have paid the price,” Noem said. “That’s what your governor did. That’s why she is going to lose her job.”

Noem said it was disturbing how quickly Americans surrendered their freedoms of assembly and speech at the request of politicians to abide by pandemic protocols. She told the Republicans in the room her Democratic counterparts “used fear to control people and to drive an agenda that they wanted to see passed.”

“I was shocked at how quickly it happened,” Noem said. “It’s said that it took a year like 2020 to wake us all up and realize how quickly we can lose this country.”

Noem talked about her family as well, introducing her husband and explaining how she quit college to take over the family farm following her father’s death in a grain elevator accident.

“When he was killed, we had no idea what we were going to do,” Noem said. “Weeks later, we got a letter in the mail from the IRS that said we owe death taxes. … I could not figure out how the federal government could come in when a family had a tragedy and tell them they owed hundreds of thousands of dollars (to the federal government) and threaten their family business.”

As governor, Noem said she never ordered a mask mandate for South Dakota, did not close businesses, and placed faith in the ability of her state’s residents to make the best decisions for the health of their families.

Per capita, South Dakota ranks third highest in COVID cases with 13,789 per 100,000 and tied for ninth in deaths with 221 per 100,000, according to data compiled by the New York Times.

By comparison, Kansas ranks 16th highest in cases with 10,625 per 100,000 and 24th in deaths with 172 per 100,000.

To wrap up her speech, Noem encouraged fellow Republicans in the room to listen to people they disagree with and have uncomfortable conversations.

“This country is addicted to being offended. … I say, get over yourself,” Noem said.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said Noem is a straight shooter.

“There’s lots of people in politics who you sometimes wonder what they really believe,” Moran said. “I don’t think there’s any question about what she believes.”

Moran introduced Noem as the convention’s featured speaker. He said making sure more women are elected to offices is a “great benefit” to the Republican Party.

“There’s a real need in this country for people of all political stripes to have a conversation instead of a fight, and she made that clear,” Moran said.

Noem answered a couple of audience questions, but she didn’t speak with media representatives who attended the event.

The “Keep Kansas Red” dinner served as a fundraiser for the Republican Party as well as a networking opportunity. Tickets for the dinner started at $150 per person. People who wanted to be part of the Chairman’s Roundtable event prior to the dinner, which included a VIP reception and photo opportunities with Noem, cost $25,000 per couple.

Convention organizers said approximately 500 people registered for the event held Friday and Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Despite convention attendees not wearing masks throughout the event, the Riley County and Manhattan city governments have mandates that calls for people to wear masks when in public. People don’t have to wear masks while eating and drinking.