PIERRE, S.D. – A key part of Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth's (search) re-election strategy is showing that she has done a good job in Washington since winning the June 1 special election.
Larry Diedrich (search), her Nov. 2 rematch opponent, hopes to convince voters otherwise.
Herseth, 33, has regularly informed the media about her votes on various issues and is holding constituent meetings in South Dakota during the congressional summer recess. She proudly points to her first bill, which would protect retirement income from skyrocketing medical costs by ensuring that no more than 25 percent of annual Social Security increases would be offset by higher Medicare premiums.
Herseth says her voting record on such things as water system funds, mandatory labeling of imported foods and more widespread use of ethanol reflects the state's best interests, regardless of party politics.
"I've demonstrated effectiveness and independence that South Dakota deserves when we only have one member of Congress," Herseth told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I think it will take away skepticism that some had of me."
South Dakota's lone House seat opened in January when Republican Bill Janklow resigned because of a manslaughter conviction involving a traffic accident.
Herseth, who had lost to Janklow in the 2002 election, defeated Diedrich by 3,005 votes and will finish Janklow's unexpired term. She is the state's first female Democratic member of Congress and joined U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson as South Dakota's all-Democrat congressional delegation. Taking credit?
Diedrich, a 47-year-old Elkton farmer who served nearly eight years in the Legislature, says Herseth has been taking credit for things she had little to do with. Backed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, he says she's using political spin to get the most mileage out of her short time in Congress.
And Diedrich doesn't think voters are buying it.
"I'm not discounting Stephanie Herseth and her abilities when I say that. I think she's just in a situation where she's low on seniority and is in the party that's not in power and is not able to do some crucial things for the state of South Dakota because of it," Diedrich says.
Herseth, a Houghton native and lawyer who was educated and worked in Washington, D.C., insists she has made important political contacts in Congress and is capably representing South Dakota. She says she has worked with local interests on issues, such as forest management, prairie dog control, the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System and prescription drug coverage.
"Many of those folks that I'm working with aren't so much interested in the politics," Herseth says. "They're interested in how the policies are going to affect them."
Herseth says she hit the ground running in Washington after being sworn in. All of her staffers are native South Dakotans, and she quickly opened field offices in the state, she says.
"The time that I spent in Washington, while some wanted to suggest was a disadvantage, has actually helped me tremendously. I have my own network of people there, many of whom serve on committee staffs, people I went to college or law school with, and this can only help facilitate my ability to do the job," Herseth says.
Diedrich and the NRCC are watching Herseth's congressional voting carefully, trying to find fault at every corner. Diedrich says he will point out differences in Herseth's views and his own views.
"Obviously, we'll look at her record, but we're not going to distort it," he says.
Diedrich says one issue Herseth has taken undue credit for is securing $17.5 million in federal money for the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System, which will pump Missouri River water to 200,000 people in northwest Iowa, southwest Minnesota and southeast South Dakota, including Sioux Falls.
The $17.5 million is only half of what the water system requested and already was in an appropriations bill before Herseth was elected, Diedrich says.
"If we had no representation, we'd have had $17.5 million," he says. "I'm not faulting her. Based on her situation, she's not in a position to make a difference on important issues to this day."
Herseth acknowledges more money is needed for the water project. She says she hopes to persuade her House colleagues to provide the remainder of the funding as the bill moves through a congressional conference committee.
The congresswoman insists she is not claiming unwarranted credit for congressional actions beneficial to South Dakota.
Herseth says Diedrich has issued statements that twist her congressional record, and she expects increasingly harsh attacks as the campaign continues.
"I know they're looking at every vote. The only way that affects me is to get ready ... for distortions I know are going to come because they've already been coming," she says.
"I just know they're not going to tell the whole story," Herseth adds. "It's going to be a challenge for me to be able to fill in the gaps and explain to South Dakota voters what the rest of the story is."
Diedrich says Democrats changed the flavor of the campaign by twisting his record on taxes.
A week before the June 1 election, the state Democratic Party accused Diedrich of misleading voters about his position on taxes. Although he talks about cutting taxes, his legislative record shows just the opposite, Democrats say.
They say he voted more than a dozen times for state tax increases or against tax cuts. For instance, Democrats say Diedrich voted over the years to raise taxes on gasoline and tourism while casting no votes on repeal of the state inheritance tax and repeal of the sales tax on groceries.
Diedrich said there was legitimate reason for each vote for a tax increase or against a decrease, he says. Specifically defending his vote to increase the gasoline tax in 1999, Diedrich says the extra revenues were needed as the state's matching share for increased federal highway funds.
"The Democrats didn't mention that for every 20 cents we invest, we get 80 cents from the feds in road money," he says. "You can't say you support value-added agriculture and not have a road system and infrastructure."
Bo Harmon, NRCC deputy communications director, says Herseth has issued numerous press releases taking credit for House legislation on which she has had little influence.
Like its political counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, NRCC has been strident in its criticism.
"It seems to be a pattern of, 'Hey, look at all of these things that I'm doing,' and she's not," Harmon says.
Harmon admits that political grandstanding is nothing new for either party, but he says Herseth has blatantly tried to look more congressionally astute than she is.
"She's trying really hard," he says, "(but) her lack of legislative experience is showing."
Diedrich would be more effective in Congress because he is in the majority party and he has considerable legislative experience, Hrmon says.
Diedrich argues that South Dakotans are more closely aligned with his conservative politics than the more liberal politics of his opponent.
Herseth has history on her side when it comes to re-election. Losing at the polls is rare for incumbents — even those who win special elections to fill unexpired terms.
In terms of party-line voting, Diedrich has the obvious edge: 225,614 Republicans are registered to vote compared to 181,386 Democrats.
However, more than 63,000 voters are registered independents or have no party affiliation, and both candidates hope to lure the larger share of them.
Diedrich says he can win independents if conditions are right.
"It depends on how things are going at the national level," the Republican House candidate says. "If people believe the president is doing a good job and they're satisfied with the way the economy is going and the way we're handling national security, I think I'm more likely to garner those independent votes."
Herseth claims solid support from many Republicans and expects to gain votes from independents. She says many Democrats who did not vote in the June election will vote on Nov. 2, and she expects to get most of those votes.
Part of Herseth's political sales pitch includes a pledge to switch sides when she thinks Republicans have the right position on issues.
She joined 26 other Democrats last month in supporting Republican-backed legislation to prevent federal courts from ordering states to recognize same-sex marriages. The measure is strongly backed by the Bush administration.
However, Diedrich doubts Herseth will often side with the GOP. So far, she has voted most of the time with liberal members of Congress, he said.
"You can be independent on certain issues, but by and large on the majority of issues you will side with your party if you want to be effective," he says.
The GOP candidate says he hasn't sensed in his campaign travels that Herseth's incumbency has gained her much support.
"That doesn't mean it's not out there, where people are placing this seal of incumbency as making a difference in the election."
Herseth hopes her brief tenure will help her win in November.
"I've heard a lot of talk about how Republicans in South Dakota won't stand in November for three Democrats in Congress and either I or Tom Daschle won't be re-elected. But the only ones saying that are the 20 or 25 percent who would never vote for a Democrat," she says.