South Dakota, while reliably conservative in national elections, has a checkered history of voting for both Democrats and Republicans for state-wide offices.
South Dakota lost a House seat in 1982 when Tom Daschle became the state’s sole representative. He later went on to the Senate, where he would become the Majority Leader until he lost the 2004 election to Republican John Thune.
In the House, South Dakota sent former Gov. Bill Janklow to Washington in 2003, until he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and resigned his seat a year later. Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin narrowly won a special election to replace him by 3 percent. She has resided in that seat ever since.
South Dakota has a lukewarm relationship with President Obama. During the 2008 primaries, the state went 55 percent for Hillary Clinton. President Obama currently enjoys upside-down job approval ratings in South Dakota; 59 percent currently disapprove of the job he has done so far.
Herseth Sandlin is well aware of her state’s dissatisfaction with the president and was one of the few House Democrats to vote against health care reform legislation earlier this year.
On the GOP side, Kristi Noem won a highly contested primary in June against her two opponents, Secretary of State Chris Nelson and State Rep. Blake Curd. Polls before the primary had put Herseth Sandlin with double-digit leads over Noem in April and May.
After the primary, Noem enjoyed a bounce that put her 12 points above Herseth Sandlin. This appears to have been temporary, however, because the latest Rasmussen poll has decimated Noem’s lead; she now has a 5-point lead over Herseth Sandlin with 3 percent undecided.
Is this the kind of race that the DNCC will be willing to fight for and (more importantly) commit campaign funds to? It’s unlikely; Charlie Cook’s Partisan Voting Index gives the district a 9-point predisposition toward the GOP.
Herseth Sandlin has raised a significant amount of moneyâ€‘â€‘more than $800,000 this cycle aloneâ€‘â€‘and may not need an outside infusion of Democratic cash. She has been a responsive representative with a voting record clearly independent of the Democratic leadership in Congress.
The evaporation of Noem’s bounce reveals that this will be a highly contested race based on merit. In a Republican year, South Dakotans are having second thoughts about jettisoning the genuine Herseth Sandlin. Noem, however, is also a strong candidate and one of the NRCC’s “Young Guns.” Merit alone may not save Rep. Herseth Sandlin.
South Dakotans appear poised to send a message to Washington that they are not thrilled with the president, and Herseth Sandlin may bear the brunt of that discontent regardless of her independence. But momentum is a tricky thing to pin down and judging by the polls, this one is all over the map. It will be an interesting fight in a state that will certainly be on the radar as a battleground in November.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org