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The 'Hottest' Race? Kristi Noem vs. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for S.D. House Seat

4 years ago
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Whether or not 2010 turns out to be the "Year of the Woman" in politics, South Dakota is a state to watch. In what some have dubbed the "hottest" race of the year, two accomplished and charismatic female candidates under the age of 40 are competing for the state's lone seat in the House.

Since winning a special election in 2004, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, 39, has easily won re-election to South Dakota's at-large congressional seat. But this year, she faces a tough challenge from state Rep. Kristi Noem, 38.

A July 9 Rasmussen poll, taken just after Noem won the GOP primary, showed her leading Herseth Sandlin by 49 percent to 44 percent, with 4 percent supporting a third candidate, and only 3 percent of voters undecided. National Journal calls the race "very winnable" for Republicans.

Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg, who wrote about the race and interviewed Noem, tells me, 'She's a terrific candidate -- personable, articulate, attractive, not easily ruffled . . . very polished."

As a consequence, Democrats in this normally stoic state are starting to freak out. The executive director of the state's Democratic Party has already called Noem an "extremist," and Noem's liberal opponents have dubbed her "South Dakota's Palin."

That's not necessarily a comparison that should hurt Noem in conservative South Dakota. It also isn't much of a stretch to compare her to Alaska's former governor. Noem's Facebook page describes her as "a wife, mother, farmer, rancher, small business owner, and South Dakotan." Apparently, Noem is a hunter. And liberals who took to making fun of the names Bristol, Piper, Track, Willow and Trig might soon come across the names of the Noems' children, Kassidy, Kennedy, and Booker.

Noem's public image is meant to contrast with that of Herseth Sandlin, a graduate of Georgetown University and Georgetown Law School. Herseth Sandlin has probably spent more time in the last 20 years in Washington, D.C., than in South Dakota. After winning in 2004, she married former Max Sandlin, a former congressman from Texas.

Ousting Herseth Sandlin won't be easy. The Herseth name still carries a lot of weight in the state. Herseth Sandlin's grandfather, Ralph Herseth, was a popular conservative Democratic governor, and Herseth Sandlin continues to benefit from his reputation.

She has dominated politically, winning 68 percent of the vote in 2008 and nearly 70 percent in 2006. But it's unlikely to be easy this year.

"I think she's vulnerable," Mike Mears of Concerned Women PAC, said of Herseth Sandlin. "I think this is the year that South Dakota politicians start matching up with South Dakota citizens."

Clearly, 2010 is different for incumbents, and Herseth Sandlin wisely saw that coming. She voted against the bank bailout legislation championed by President Barack Obama and opposed her party's leadership on health care legislation, a move that almost drew her a primary challenge from the left. She later cut a deal with her potential Democratic primary opponent, promising that if he stayed out of the race [as the Rapid City Journal reported], "she would not vote to repeal" the legislation. As Noem campaign manager Josh Shields told me, "That's exactly what people are frustrated with in Washington, D.C. -- the backroom deals."

Herseth Sandlin is working hard to portray herself as a conservative Democrat, and the test will be whether she can sell that image in this environment -- or whether Noem will allow her to do so.

Having already posted a "fact check" video in response to Herseth Sandlin's first TV ad, Noem is aggressively contesting the incumbent's claim to conservatism. Noem's counter talking point? That when voters realize how Herseth Sandlin votes, they won't like it. "The fact that Herseth Sandlin's voting record -- 95 percent of the time with [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi -- is something that really resonates with South Dakotans," Josh Shields said sarcastically.

Voters are also about to be reminded that Herseth Sandlin was a co-sponsor of the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), aka "Card Check." Abortion and other social issues may also play a role in the race. Noem is supported by such conservative groups as Concerned Women PAC, the Susan B. Anthony List, and FRC Action PAC, while Herseth Sandlin has previously been backed by the liberal, EMILY's List.

Another wild card is that South Dakota's Republican Sen. John Thune is running unopposed this year. Thune has plenty of money anyway, and seems happy to share his bounty with Noem. He recently hosted a fundraiser for Noem in Rapid City, and has another planned for her in Sioux Falls. Thune's PAC has already contributed to Noem, and there's speculation he might send even more money to her campaign. No word yet on when, or if, Sarah Palin will be coming to the state to endorse this "Mama Grizzly."

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