Stephanie Herseth and Larry Diedrich are local candidates in a campaign with national stakes, South Dakota rivals in a congressional race that pits the political parties in a struggle as intense as their own.
Which explains why the Republican and Democratic House campaign committees have spent about $2 million on television ads in less than three months. And the parade of prominent politicians to the state, including Vice President Dick Cheney for Diedrich and House Democrats for Herseth.
“They’re spending a lot of money, we’re spending a lot of money. It’s a heck of a battle,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
Herseth leads in the polls in the Republican-heavy state, although recent private surveys show her edge over Diedrich dwindling as the June 1 special election for the state’s vacant House seat approaches.
Democrats look for victory not only to gain a seat, but also to validate claims of a favorable trend five months before elections in which all 435 House districts will be on the ballot. They took a seat away from the GOP in Kentucky in February in a special election, and national polling shows support for President Bush as well as congressional Republicans slumping.
The Rebublican view
Republicans hope Diedrich can complete a comeback and blunt Democratic claims of momentum, although they are reluctant to assign heavy national significance to a race in which their candidate has trailed.
“If Democrats win it means two tough special elections,” shrugged Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, a reference to Kentucky. Republicans gained a seat this year when a veteran Texas Democrat switched parties.
Nationally, Democrats must gain a dozen seats in their uphill battle for control of the House.
Locally, the winner will fill the seven months remaining in the term of former GOP Rep. Bill Janklow, who resigned after conviction on a traffic-related manslaughter charge.
Ironically, it’s a campaign that will outlast election day. Herseth and Diedrich meet again in the November election, this time for a full, two-year House term.
Herseth, 33, is a third-generation South Dakota politician, granddaughter of a governor and daughter of a state legislator. After high school, she went to Washington for college and law school, then was a law clerk back home and in Maryland.
She lost to Janklow in 2002, but that race left her far better known than Diedrich when the seat became open. She launched her current campaign with a call for civility and a pledge to focus on issues, an approach well-suited to a candidate with a large lead.
“I’m not going to tear my opponent down. He deserves better than that and so do you,” she said in one early commercial.
Herseth seeks the political center in a state where Republicans hold a large voter registration advantage. In an interview, she said that in the House, she would join a “moderate, conservative caucus ... that has worked in a bipartisan way.”
Another commercial mentions her experience as a high school track runner. “What I learned on those relay teams and in the fellowship of Christian Athletes is that we were a better team when we had faith in each other. That’s why in Congress it won’t matter to me what party someone is in,” she says.
Diedrich, 46, began more than 25 points behind in the polls and lagging in campaign funds. The GOP campaign committee immediately began advertising to make him better known, while he raised money to match Herseth.
A farmer, former state lawmaker, and one-time national president of the American Soybean Association, Diedrich has made experience his campaign calling card. “It’s so important that we have someone with experience, as simple as living in the state as an adult,” raising a family, owning a business or serving in the Legislature, he recently told a Republican audience.
Commercials with an edge
His commercials make a similar claim, with an edge. “Actions speak louder than words. Stephanie Herseth talks about health care. Larry Diedrich delivered with cheaper prescriptions ... She talks about veterans, Diedrich fought to expand eligibility of benefits,” says one ad.
An abortion opponent, he also said in an interview that “some of these fundamental values are what hit hardest” in his rural state.
The GOP has pitched in along those lines, mass-mailing a half-dozen different fliers that label Herseth “strongly pro-choice” and say she has received funding from “radical pro-choice groups.”
“I knew they would try to make it an issue,” said Herseth, who supports abortion rights. But she accuses the GOP of distortions and says, “That’s why I have supporters who may disagree with me on making abortion legal.”
Predictably, civility has frayed as the campaign has tightened, with accusations of distortions on tax cuts and Social Security.
But it’s also ending as it began, with a heavy involvement by the two parties.
Democrats recently expanded their television advertising to stations in Sioux City, Iowa, that reach fewer than 2 percent of South Dakota households. It’s an indication that they, like Republicans in Washington, are leaving nothing to chance.