On her way to narrowly winning (by 2,944 votes) the seat vacated by Rep. William Janklow (R.-S.D.) after his conviction for manslaughter in an automobile accident, Democrat Stephanie Herseth moved to the right on several issues, trying to align herself with President Bush and distance herself from John Kerry.
In preparing for the June 1 contest with Republican State Sen. Larry Diedrich, the 33-year-old Herseth announced that she supported President Bush on the Iraq War and agreed with both Bush and Diedrich on the need for a federal marriage amendment. She also said she favored retaining some (albeit not all) of Bush’s tax cuts.
Asked by a reporter if she wanted Kerry to campaign for her, Herseth laughingly said, “I just don’t see there would be any interest from my campaign or the national party.”
Herseth and Diedrich focused on their disagreements over the prescription drug package and abortion. Diedrich supported Bush’s prescription drug entitlement; Herseth favored the more expensive Democratic plan. Diedrich was strongly pro-life; Herseth was strongly pro-abortion and backed by EMILY’s List.
Herseth began the race with the advantage of high name recognition: She is the daughter of the 1986 Democratic nominee for governor and granddaughter of former Gov. Ralph Herseth. In 2002, she won 46% of the vote challenging Janklow. She started this special election campaign in February 29 points ahead of Diedrich.
The race tightened considerably after Diedrich’s campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly $2 million on a hard-hitting media campaign, contrasting Diedrich’s background as a farmer and local official with Herseth’s recent experience as a Washington, D.C., lawyer. In a state where the latest Aberdeen Argus-Leader poll showed Bush leading Kerry by 51% to 35%, the GOP hopeful also got a big boost from a campaign appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Two weeks ago, the Democrats blundered when Sen. Tim Johnson (D.-S.D.) said at a Herseth rally that if she won it would send a message to “the Taliban Wing of the Republican Party.” Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie and other party officials demanded that Johnson apologize and that Herseth repudiate his remarks. Herseth dodged the demand. But after two days, Johnson did apologize.
South Dakota now has a completely Democratic congressional delegation for the first time since 1937. But Herseth and Diedrich will face off again in November, and that could help Republican John Thune in his race against Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. According to a just-completed Argus-Leader poll, Daschle holds only a two-point lead over Thune, who lost the other Senate seat to Johnson in 2002 by a disputed 575 votes.