In South Dakota, Democrats' own 'mama grizzly' vs. 'the next Sarah Palin'

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota's lone House member, is the Democratic Party's own mama grizzly, straight out of the heartland. She's been elected to three full terms but faces her most serious threat yet, state Rep. Kristi Noem, soft-spoken but tough and an unabashed conservative.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- As South Dakota's lone House member, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) wants each of her votes to reflect the wholesome, conservative values of this rural rectangle of a state. So she has artfully tailored her record: no on the health-care overhaul; no on the Wall Street bailouts; no on the cap-and-trade energy bill. She's a proud Democrat, she says, but a prouder South Dakotan.

Still, there is that one vote Herseth Sandlin cast, the aye for California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker, that her opponent has hammered her on.

"I believe the U.S. House of Representatives is the people's house. It is not Nancy Pelosi's house," Herseth Sandlin's Republican challenger, state Rep. Kristi Noem, told an applauding crowd at the fairgrounds recently during their first debate of the campaign.

A big Republican wave may be coming in November. And despite distancing herself from her party's policies, despite touting her independence and moderation, Herseth Sandlin could be washed away by the simple fact that she has a "D" after her name. Throughout the Midwest and South, dozens of her fellow centrists are also imperiled by the backlash of voters threatening to take out their disdain for President Obama and the direction he has taken the country on anyone who is a Democrat.

(Interactive: Drill down on the South Dakota House race)

This is what Herseth Sandlin had hoped to avoid as she traveled a career arc that seemed almost predestined. In this state, across golden cornfields and rugged ranges, she is political royalty. The daughter of a longtime state legislator, granddaughter of a former governor and a former state secretary of state, Herseth Sandlin is sometimes called "South Dakota's princess."

Voters know her simply as Stephanie -- a pretty, perky prairie girl who can do no wrong. "South Dakota is a unique place," she said in her opening debate line. "South Dakotans are special people."

(Poll: How many of Palin's candidates will win?)

Nationally, Herseth Sandlin is considered a rising star in her party, the Democrats' own "mama grizzly" straight out of the heartland. She gained her seat in this Republican-leaning state at age 33 in a 2004 special election to succeed William J. Janklow (R), who resigned because of a manslaughter conviction. She won her last two races in landslides, capturing nearly 70 percent of the vote.

But 2010 is a different time, and Herseth Sandlin, 39, faces her most serious threat yet. Noem, 38, is authentic, tall and lean, soft-spoken but tough, an unabashed conservative who rarely strays off script. She's a made-for-Fox News star in her own right.

Whereas Herseth Sandlin grew up on a farm, Noem runs a ranch. She rides horses, herds cattle, hunts elk (with a bow), shoots prairie dogs (with a rifle) and skins pheasants. With her husband, Bryon, she takes care of two teenage daughters, Kassidy and Kennedy, a son, Booker, and a rotating crew of nieces and nephews.

Some have dubbed her "the next Sarah Palin."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company