South Dakota Candidates Relive Spring Race

In a state like South Dakota, with just 543,000 residents of voting age, it’s customary for congressional candidates to get a lot of face time with potential voters.

And that's what candidates Larry Diedrich (search), the Republican, and Stephanie Herseth (search), the Democratic incumbent for the last two months, are hoping to do between now and November.

"We feel good about it," Diedrich, a lifelong farmer who came out of heart surgery in June with a renewed vigor for the race, said of the rematch with his former rival. "I think the enthusiasm has been great as we travel across the state."

Deidrich and Herseth met up on June 1 for a special election to fill the term vacated by Republican Rep. Bill Janklow (search), who was convicted of manslaughter and served 100 days in jail for killing a motorcyclist with his car on Aug 16, 2003. Janklow defeated Herseth in 2002 for the open seat.

In the three months prior to the special election, Diedrich worked doggedly to close the huge gap between him and Herseth. He lost the race by less than 2 percentage points. He then spent five days in the hospital recovering from valve surgery.

Diedrich, a state senator who resigned his post in January to run for office, said he believes his close loss was a "wake-up call" to Republicans in South Dakota – who outnumber Democrats by at least 45,000 – not to take anything for granted.

"I think some people felt guilty because they didn’t think it was going to be a close race and they didn’t put 110 percent into it," he told "They stayed home and didn’t vote."

Though no polls have been taken on the current race, both sides say they have the advantage. Analysts say both sides have reason to think that way.

"It’s a tough race to bet on," said David Kranz, political editor and writer for the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota.

"What you got now is a kind of partisan view from both sides," he said. "They’re flying by the seat of their pants because there are no new polls."

Kranz said while "it was considered a major victory," for Herseth, a 33-year-old lawyer who lost to Janklow 53 to 46 percent, Diedrich also pulled off a near-coup by closing a 30-percent gap that he faced at the start of this spring's race.

But, Kranz added, power runs to the incumbent. While Diedrich is hoping that the nearly 80,000 registered voters who did not turn out at the June polls will vote Republican, Kranz warns that the supercharged Senate race between Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) and former GOP Rep. John Thune (search) will set into motion a whole new Democratic "get-out-the-vote" effort, particularly on the heavily Democratic Native American reservations, which did not come out in full force for the special election.

"While Diedrich will benefit from the fact that most of the new voters will be Republican, when you consider that only half of the Native American voters voted in the June election … and the Daschle machine wasn’t oiled up, what that adds up to is another close race," he said.

Supporters add that as the newest member of Congress, Herseth has hit the ground running, They insist South Dakotans cannot ignore her dedication or fail to give her the opportunity to serve a full term in office.

"She moved immediately," said spokesman Russ Levsen of her actions in Congress. "She has been working very hard to be an independent voice and not a rubber stamp for either party."

Levsen said Herseth is particularly proud of her July 22 introduction of the Social Security Cost Of Living Adjustment Protection Act (search), which Herseth hopes will fix some of the problems with the existing COLA requirements in the Medicare bill.

She also joined the Agriculture, Veterans Affairs and Resources Committees, and has already cast 102 votes.

"I would say she is extremely well positioned for re-election," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed. "She ran an excellent campaign based squarely on being an independent voice for South Dakota and she’s delivered on that since coming here."

Jason Schulte, executive director for the South Dakota Democratic Party, agreed. "She’s been working very hard – I think the voters of South Dakota will reinvest in her again."

Critics say that Herseth campaigned like a moderate Republican in the special election and now must prove she won’t give in to the pressures of her party. They complain she already voted for a Democratic amendment to the House budget resolution in June that would have reduced tax cuts for high-income filers, including small businesses.

In South Dakota, which has only one at-large congressional seat, priority issues range from agriculture and property rights to health care for seniors and veterans. The state has one of the highest numbers of active duty servicemen and women and veterans per population in the country.

Herseth’s critics complain she is taking undue credit for the $17.5 million released for the Lewis and Clark Water System project, when it was already allocated before the election, as well as for an August decision by Secretary of Interior Gale A. Norton to remove the black-tailed prairie dog, a menace to South Dakotan farmers, from the endangered species list.

"Her true colors are beginning to come out, they don’t reflect the true interest of South Dakota," said Jason Glodt, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party.

Herseth’s office denies she took credit for anything, and was merely communicating the successes of projects and initiatives as a matter of course.

"Representative Herseth was doing her job," said Levsen.

Glodt and others say they believe Diedrich brings more experience and the South Dakota spirit to the table, despite Herseth’s short tenure in office, and they are willing to take on the odds in November.

"He’s a down-to-earth South Dakotan farmer and he is very easy to relate to. You won’t find a harder worker, he’s very honest and humble," said Glodt. "The more people who meet Larry Diedrich the more support he gets."