With four days to go before the special U.S. House election in South Dakota, Republicans in the state and in Washington have begun to grow upbeat about retaining a seat they had privately written off less than a month ago.
Almost since the resignation of Republican Rep. Bill Janklow following his conviction on manslaughter charges, Democrat Stephanie Herseth (who drew an impressive 54% of the vote against Janklow in ’02) has appeared a slam-dunk. A win by lawyer Herseth–grand-daughter of a former governor, daughter of a past gubernatorial nominee–over Republican State Sen. Larry Diederich would unquestionably boost Democratic chances (and fund-raising) for recapture of the House itself in the fall. Polls showed Herseth with double digit leads over the lesser-known Diederich.
But earlier this week, it was growing obvious that Diederich had narrowed the gap through hard-campaigning, closely associating himself with President Bush (who holds a 51% to 35% statewide lead over John Kerry, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader poll), and spirited attacks on Herseth’s support from outside left-wing groups such as EMILY’s List. One Democratic survey reportedly showed Herseth barely clinging to a one-percentage point edge over her hard-charging opponent.
So worried were Democratic powers about the race that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) began campaigning for Herseth. At one rally last Saturday, Johnson told a cheering crowd “how sweet it’s going to be” when Herseth wins and “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party finds out what’s happening in South Dakota.”
Overnight, Republicans from National Chairman Ed Gillespie on down demanded that Johnson apologize and that Herseth and other Democrats disassociate themselves from remarks which State GOP Chairman Randy Frederick described as “an attack on the character of all Republicans in South Dakota.” The Argus Leader, which had recently endorsed Herseth, also demanded an apology from Johnson. Three days after his incendiary remarks, the senator said (according to UPI) “he was sorry if he had offended anyone and that he wished he had been able to elaborate more on what he meant by comparison.” This was followed with a blast from the Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic over the quality of the apology.