Rarely have South Dakota voters turned out an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Tuesday might be such an election. If Republican challenger Kristi Noem indeed defeats Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Noem will join a short list of some big names in South Dakota politics.
The last time that an incumbent House member lost re-election in South Dakota was 1982. That race comes with an asterisk, however, because it was a consolidation election, as South Dakota lost a House district. That November, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle beat Republican U.S. Rep. Clint Roberts. An incumbent had to lose.
In 1974, Republican challenger Larry Pressler took down Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Denholm for the old East River seat in the House, amid the distrust sown by the Watergate scandal. In 1956, Democratic challenger George McGovern defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Harold Lovre for the East River seat, amid unrest over the Eisenhower administration’s farm policy. In 1932, the watershed of the Depression, Democratic challenger Fred Hildebrandt topped Republican U.S. Rep. Charles A. Christopherson in an election year that was a nearly-clean sweep for Democrats in South Dakota and nationally.
Herseth Sandlin, like Denholm, Lovre and Christopherson, seems to have been caught in something bigger nationally this year. The economy’s sharp plunge didn’t hurt her two years ago, but the continued high unemployment and the investment markets’ inability to fully recover have fueled pessimism. The past two years of the new Obama administration haven’t been kind to her in other ways. She seemed powerless when, as President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, his EPA immediately took positions that effectively blocked the Big Stone II powerplant expansion and Basin Electric’s proposed Walworth County plant. EPA’s large fines for ethanol plants was another blow. She was caught in the middle on the president’s and the Democratic congressional majorities’ overhaul of health coverage, first voting against it, then dodging a primary challenge from a Rapid City doctor and subsequently voting to not allow an attempt to repeal parts of it. The final blow might have been inattentiveness on the B-1B bomber funding.
Herseth Sandlin missed the 2008 state Democratic convention for reasons stil unexplained. Had Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson not sought re-election in 2008, the seat easily might have been won by Herseth Sandlin. She instead ran for re-election to the House and won in every one of South Dakota’s 66 counties. Yet few South Dakotans seem to have met her husband, former Texas U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin. And as any parent can attest, having a baby changes life. The Democrats’ failure to field an opponent this year to Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune meant Herseth Sandlin was the senior Democrat in charge of her party’s field operations to get out the vote this fall. It also meant Thune had all the time he wanted in these final days to join Noem on a bus tour to rally voters across the state.
For Thune, a defeat of Herseth Sandlin removes the most likely challenger to the Senate seat he holds. Johnson, meanwhile, physically still wasn’t in a position to help Herseth Sandlin after his December 2006 emergency brain surgery. Nor has the Democratic candidate for governor, Scott Heidepriem, been in a position to help Herseth Sandlin. He’s more unpopular than she is, and he was Obama’s campaign chairman in South Dakota two years ago. Johnson’s PAC has been able to help Heidepriem more than Herseth Sandlin.
It was Noem, by the way, who publicly challenged Heidepriem during a state legislative committee hearing two years ago about his law firm’s ties to the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit against state government over more slot machines for the tribe’s casino. Heidepriem has tried for two years to get casino gambling into the Sioux Falls area, and the proposal seems to have irrevocably hurt his candidacy and further limited any help he might have been able to give Herseth Sandlin. Noem’s highway signs often have appeared next to Republican governor candidate Dennis Daugaard’s signs in the rural areas of South Dakota, dating back to the last weeks of the primary, and the association likely hasn’t hurt her.
Both of the top Democratic names on the ballot have clearly been uncomfortable bearing their party’s name this election cycle. Heidepriem ran as a self-described “independent Democrat” and Herseth Sandlin, while officially still a Democrat, refers to herself on her campaign Internet site only as an independent. Noem’s speeding tickets and related offenses of failing to appear in court after failing to timely pay her fines briefly gave Herseth Sandlin a lead in the Rasmussen polling, but that lead vanished with time, even as Herseth Sandlin and her allies including various county prosecutors continued to drive that topic. It didn’t help her that her father, former legislator and governor candidate Lars Herseth, and Heidepriem and Daugaard had nearly as many tickets as Noem.
So Herseth Sandlin is fighting from a deep hole, while Noem seems to have the advantage of more enthusiasm among Republican voters and organizers than could be found among Democrats during the important final month of the campaign. This was reflected in the gains made in Republican voter registration since the June primary election and down the stretch between Oct. 1 and the final day of registration Oct. 18. In that final stretch Republicans added 1,903 registered voters and Democrats 900, while independents increased 1,497. The newspaper endorsements this past week ran 6-0 in favor of Daugaard over Heidepriem but split in the U.S. House race, with three for Herseth Sandlin and two for Noem.
Herseth — she wasn’t married yet — received 45.6 percent of the vote in a three-way race in her first run for the House in 2002. She received a second chance when the winner, Republican Bill Janklow, was convicted of manslaughter in the traffic death of a motorcyclist. Herseth won the 2004 June special election with 50.6 percent of the vote against Republican Larry Diedrich. She won their rematch that November for a full term with 53.4 percent in a three-way race. She won another term in 2006 with 69.1 percent. Her 2008 victory was with 67.6 percent. The most recent independent surveys by experienced polling firms put her October levels of support in the range of 43 to 45 percent. If those numbers are right, she would be back where she began eight autumns ago.