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

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A01

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.

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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."

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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."

"Is there a definition for a mama grizzly?" Noem asked, laughing, as she sat at the old table in her farmhouse kitchen. The kids stormed in and out for dinner, fetching breadsticks and spoonfuls of pasta. Grandma stood at the counter readying the strawberry pie.

"People are constantly trying to find a label for you, and in my life there's never really been a label for me," Noem continued. "I've just been in business, farming and ranching, and served in the legislature. In this race, especially, people are going to try to put you in a box and try to define you, and I've been pretty firm in making sure I'm the only one who does that."

The "Battle of the Babes," as some political watchers in the state are calling it, will decide more than just who holds South Dakota's at-large House seat. It is a test of whether Republicans, in their bid to recapture the House, can win in the 48 congressional districts, including this one, that are represented by Democrats but whose voters went for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. It also is a test of whether moderate Democrats, like Herseth Sandlin, who often vote against their party on controversial issues, can survive in an unusually tumultuous year. Recent public polling showed Noem with a small lead.

More at stake

For Herseth Sandlin and Noem, there's more at stake. South Dakota political strategists say the winner will become the overwhelming favorite to eventually succeed Sen. Tim Johnson (D), whose term ends in 2014. Johnson was recently hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, but his spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said he is in good health and has no plans to retire.

But more than anything, this campaign, playing out across the small cities and prairie towns that dot South Dakota's vast terrain, is a window into the heartland values of fiscal responsibility and government restraint that promise to shape outcomes this fall as well as in Obama's 2012 reelection bid.

"Kristi and Stephanie are two moms having a debate over how to balance America's household budget," said GOP strategist Paul Erickson, a South Dakota native who returned home to watch the two debate. "South Dakota voters seem to perfectly embody the prevailing fiscal mood of the country. They look at Obama's spending the same way they'd look at a 10-year-old at the county fair who's had five corn dogs and three cotton candies: shaking their heads and muttering, 'Too much!' "

Of this, Herseth Sandlin is keenly aware. She touts her fiscal conservatism at every opportunity. In the debate, she said she voted against "hundreds of billions of dollars of spending." Nowhere in her campaign literature does it say she is a Democrat. And unlike her opponent, Herseth Sandlin said, she does not parrot her national party's talking points.

"We have one voice in the House of Representatives for South Dakota, and that person needs to stand up when a national political agenda isn't good for South Dakota, and that person needs to work together when a particular agenda presents opportunities for South Dakota," Herseth Sandlin said, noting that she stood up to Obama and Pelosi on health care and bank bailouts but voted with them on the economic stimulus because she believed it would save jobs and provide a lifeline to the state's wind-energy industry. "I've done what's right for South Dakota."

Rozanne Winger, 67, a retired nurse practitioner from Sioux Falls, buys it. "There could be no question about her not being a rubber stamp," she said. "The argument that she supports Nancy Pelosi is totally bogus."

Regardless, Noem and more than a few South Dakota voters see Herseth Sandlin as enabling a progressive agenda that is unpopular in this state of about 800,000 people.

"The whole philosophy behind what they have promoted . . . has been completely out of step with South Dakota," Noem said at her home, Racotah Ranch, in tiny Castlewood, about 100 miles north of Sioux Falls. "South Dakotans identify with having the freedom to make choices for themselves, believing in competition and being able to run their small businesses the way that they see fit, not being forced with dealing with government mandates all the time."

Noem's message is resonating with some voters. "We need a strong conservative voice in D.C.," said Dee Van Deest, 67, a retired secretary from Sioux Falls. "Kristi represents our values. She's the real deal. She's the mama grizzly that we hope for."

Noem first became political as a college student. One cold March night, her father slipped into a giant corn bin and died. She abandoned her political science studies to return home and help her mother run the family farm. After they barely scraped together enough cash to pay the estate taxes, Noem became active in conservative causes. She was elected to the state legislature in 2006. Two years later, she was assistant majority leader.

This year, she entered the congressional race on a shoestring budget, selling hundreds of cattle to fund her campaign and sending her own press releases. She surprised many by beating two better-known Republicans in the June 8 primary.

Now, she is one of the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Young Guns" and has surrounded herself with skilled operatives from the inner circle of the last Republican to win a big race here: Sen. John Thune, who toppled then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) in 2004.

Whisper campaign

The contest has already gotten nasty. There is a whisper campaign underway to suggest that Herseth Sandlin -- who, since taking office, has married a former congressman from Texas, Max Sandlin, and who did not return to South Dakota for several months after giving birth to a son, Zachary, in December 2008 -- does not really live here.

In the debate, when Herseth Sandlin said, "I currently live in Brookings," some of Noem's supporters snickered. Surprised, Herseth Sandlin paused mid-sentence for four seconds before moving on. The next day, in an interview at her Brookings home, Herseth Sandlin called it all "laughable."

"It does anger me, because it's an outright lie and supporters of my opponent are spreading it," Herseth Sandlin said as her 20-month-old son napped in the next room. "This is our home. This is the only property we own."

Noem has also seized on comments that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) made about Herseth Sandlin while the two visited a South Dakota Indian reservation. "She has voted differently than I voted on a couple of things," Franken reportedly said, "but we need to be able to have somebody here in South Dakota who's going to vote for Speaker Pelosi, not for Speaker Boehner," referring to House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio).

The quote undermined Herseth Sandlin's strategy. Asked in the interview about her relationship with Pelosi, Herseth Sandlin grew visibly uncomfortable. "It's collegial," she said, "but no one would mistake us for being best friends."

Then she got on message.

"To try to make this campaign about Nancy Pelosi, Kristi Noem should move to San Francisco and run against Nancy Pelosi," Herseth Sandlin said. "But voters in South Dakota know that I have a strong record of independence, of being a centrist, of working with circumstances I have in a particular Congress with a particular administration."

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