As a Blue Dog in a red state, Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has worked carefully to develop a moderate reputation in an area where Republicans outnumber their rivals.
Building on a stellar political pedigree, the state's lone congresswoman and first female House member has kept to the center. She voted against health care reform and bailouts for the financial and auto industries, saying they cost too much with too little oversight.
But South Dakota Republicans believe they have a good shot at beating Herseth Sandlin in November. They have tried to tie her to unpopular Democrats in Washington, and her Republican opponent mirrors her in key ways: a young mother who grew up on her family's South Dakota farm. Now the GOP is working to sway voters who gave Herseth Sandlin landslide victories in her last two re-election bids.
"I really have been pretty satisfied with Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. She's a little different than a normal Democrat," said Jim Dixon, 75, of Huron. But Dixon said he might shift his support as he learns more about Republican challenger Kristi Noem, the assistant minority leader in the state House of Representatives.
The South Dakota race is part of the national battle between Democrats and Republicans, who need to gain 40 seats to win back control of the U.S. House. The GOP hopes the nation's anti-incumbent mood will cause voters to toss out Herseth Sandlin and other Democrats.
After failing to find strong challengers to Herseth Sandlin in previous elections, the South Dakota GOP enjoyed a spirited primary. The three candidates argued that change is needed because Herseth Sandlin is part of the Democratic Congress that they say has run up a massive deficit and failed to end the economic downturn.
"She's got a voting record that does not line up with the priorities of South Dakota," said Noem.
Nonsense, says Herseth Sandlin, who is seeking her fourth full term in the U.S. House. She says South Dakota voters know she has supported ethanol, wind energy, small businesses, Native Americans and economic development. She voted for the stimulus measure because she believed it would help end the recession sooner.
After the health care vote, Republicans focused their criticism on the Democratic Congress in general and — despite her vote against it — criticized Herseth Sandlin for supporting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"I'm running for Congress in South Dakota, not Nancy Pelosi," countered Herseth Sandlin, who is co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats and a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Herseth Sandlin has a big lead in campaign funds, having raised more than $818,000 by the end of the last reporting period May 19. Much of that came from political action committees, particularly agricultural interests. But Noem raised nearly $244,000 after entering the race in February.
South Dakota has sent some prominent Democrats to Congress, including former presidential candidate George McGovern and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. But in a state where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats 46 percent to 38 percent, Herseth Sandlin has won by appealing to fiscal conservatives, said William Anderson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.
"No one stands much more firmly in the middle than Rep. Herseth Sandlin," Anderson said. "I don't think she's made any significant political missteps enough to be really vulnerable to any candidate from the right."
This year, though, voters might focus not on Herseth Sandlin's record, but on their dissatisfaction with Congress. Jill Bartlett, 63, a clothing store owner from Pierre, said both candidates are capable, but she believes the only way to make Congress cut regulations and reduce spending is to elect new people.
"I'm voting change on everything I'm voting for because I'm so unhappy with what is happening," Bartlett said.
Herseth Sandlin, 39, grew up on the family farm. Her grandfather was governor and her grandmother was secretary of state. Her father was a legislative leader. She received a law degree from Georgetown University. And while she lost her first congressional race in 2002, she won the seat in a special election in 2004. She is married to former U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin of Texas and they had their first child, Zachary, a little more than a month after she won re-election in 2008.
Noem, 38, also grew up on a family farm. She helped run it for two decades and helped manage other small businesses including a hunting lodge and a restaurant. She was elected to the No. 2 post in the Republican leadership in only her third year in the South Dakota House. Noem and her husband, Bryon, who operates an insurance agency, have two daughters, Kassidy, 16; and Kennedy, 13; and one son, Booker, 8.
She has pledged to repeal health care reform, reduce government regulation of business, cut federal spending, avoid tax increases and support gun-owners' rights.
Katie Ortman, 57, a substitute teacher from Canistota, said she voted for a different Republican in the primary, but doesn't know how she will vote in November. She said she was pleased Herseth Sandlin opposed the health reform bill.
"I really like the fact she's an independent thinker," Ortman said.
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