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South Dakota Surprise

A special election gives Democrats hope for November.

12:00 AM, Jun 3, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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ON TUESDAY NIGHT Democrat Stephanie Herseth narrowly won a special election in South Dakota. Herseth's victory coupled with the special election win of Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler in February in Kentucky's sixth district might give Democrats reason to argue that the results are a rejection of President Bush and a bellwether of what may come in November.

The Democrats do have reason to celebrate. Both Herseth and Chandler won seats in rural voting districts--districts historically held by Republicans--in states carried by Bush in 2000. "Democrats don't usually win these kind of districts," says Mark Gersh of the National Committee for an Effective Congress.

Herseth's victory also marks the first time since 1937 that Democrats have controlled the entire South Dakota congressional delegation.

But what the two victories mostly spell out is that Democrats are capable of making inroads in unlikely places. Both candidates ran on moderate platforms, taking pains to separate themselves from the more liberal wing of their party. The South Dakota Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, which endorsed Herseth, wrote that "Herseth sought to discard the liberal label . . . and demonstrated that with her support of President Bush for his handling of the war and his call for a constitutional amendment on marriage."

And Herseth's victory was a long time coming. "Herseth was a candidate with rock star status who never really stopped running since her '02 defeat," the National Journal's Hotline reported yesterday. Herseth, the granddaughter of a popular former governor, also benefited from high name recognition because of a strong run in 2002 when she went up against Janklow and captured 47 percent of the vote.

She also had a significant head start, leading Republican Larry Diedrich, a relatively unknown farmer from rural Elkton, by 29 percentage points when the campaign began. And still, Diedrich managed to come within just over a percentage point of Herseth on Tuesday.

There's also the Janklow factor. Many voters likely went out to cast a vote against the party of Bill Janklow, who vacated the seat to face vehicular manslaughter charges. "Obviously some of the votes were a reaction against Janklow," Gersh said.

What's more, Herseth will have to run again in November. Conventional wisdom holds that whoever captures the special election has the general wrapped up. But if Bush looks likely to win reelection, South Dakota voters may be hesitant to send an entire delegation to Washington who wouldn't find a friendly face in the Oval Office, which would be unfortunate for Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who, despite massive spending, holds only a two percent lead over former Republican Rep. John Thune, according to the latest independent poll.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.