Race for South Dakota's House seat a close contestby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Sioux Falls, S.D. — The candidates in a hard-fought race for South Dakota's only seat in the U.S. House will debate tonight and tomorrow as polls continue to show a very close contest.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a once-popular three-term Democrat, is trying to fend off attacks linking her to Washington. Republicans are counting on a win in South Dakota to help them take control of the House.
A recent Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting ceremony in Sioux Falls celebrated new office space for an internet company called Click Rain.
The firm handles the online campaign of South Dakota's Republican U.S. House candidate Kristi Noem. Click Rain President Paul Tenhaken says the contest is attracting a lot of web traffic.
"Kristi was featured as the top story on the Drudge Report for about four hours and during that period of time the web server was probably smoking," says Tenhaken.
"Hi everybody, I'm Kristi Noem and I'm running for Congress," Noem says in the introductory line in an early campaign ad, which she taped early this year when she was still a member of the South Dakota House.
She went on to win a close, three-way primary fight in June.
After she won the GOP nomination Noem quickly narrowed the large lead of incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Her weapon of choice: Nancy Pelosi, a name that has become symbolic of what many voters see as the mess in Washington.
Noem was unavailable for an interview for this report, but she spoke last week at the state's largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. The Republican said Herseth Sandlin's support of the Democratic speaker of the House hurts South Dakota.
"And when I look at what Nancy Pelosi supports and represents, it has nothing to do with South Dakota," she said.
That theme carries through Noem's advertising as well.
Announcer: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, she acts one way in South Dakota, another way in Washington.
That line of attack has helped Noem brand Herseth Sandlin with a host of Washington political issues that play poorly in conservative South Dakota, like too much federal spending and regulation.
"When candidates run into trouble in this state, it's usually when they look like they no longer are connected to South Dakota," said Brent Lerseth, who teaches government at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
He said Herseth Sandlin has tried to counter the out of touch perception by pointing to water, farm and other bedrock South Dakota issues she's focused on.
"There's not a huge difference between her as a candidate then the last time she ran," says Lerseth. "Other than the fact that the party's viewed very differently nationally. But in terms of what she's proposed and what she's done within Congress has been very similar. "
But the tight race is a big change for Herseth Sandlin. She won her last couple of re-elections with two-thirds of the vote.
Herseth Sandlin is trying to convince South Dakotans that her votes in Congress have helped the state. During her own meeting with the Sioux Falls newspaper's editorial board, Herseth Sandlin said the federal stimulus helped stabilize the state's economy.
"Watertown had an 8.2 percent unemployment rate in April of 2009," says Herseth Sandlin. "Today it's about 4.2 percent."
But so far, the Democrat's message is falling short. The most recent poll shows her in a statistical dead heat.
Sioux Falls resident Jack Dyvig voted for the Democrat in each of the last two elections. But not this year, he said.
"She goes along a lot with the Democrats instead of following what South Dakota needs," says Dyvig.
The contest is so close Herseth Sandlin has been forced to do something she's avoided in the past, negative campaigning. She's attacked Kristi Noem for a long string of speeding tickets the Republican amassed.
Announcer: "When does a politician think they're above the law? If they've gotten a speeding ticket? How about 20 speeding tickets?"
Herseth Sandlin supporter Arlene Fryer said it's a legitimate issue.
"If you want to be a lawmaker, then you shouldn't be a lawbreaker," Fryer said.
But it's not clear that issue will help Herseth Sandlin keep her seat. The tight race ratchets up the pressure on the candidates as they prepare to debate with only a few days left in the campaign.
- All Things Considered, 10/26/2010, 5:24 p.m.