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The Scarlet 'D'

It’s hard out here for a Democrat.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Hot Springs, South Dakota

The Scarlet 'D'

Want a measure of how bad November 2 could be for the Democrats? Take a look at South Dakota—home of the Badlands, the Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, and a Democratic party that we know isn’t dead only because from time to time it twitches in its sleep.

Here’s one sign of how far the tide has ebbed: Eight years ago, Republican John Thune lost, by a slim margin, to Democratic senator Tim Johnson. Two years later, running for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, Thune managed to slip past the Democrats’ Senate leader Tom Daschle—a close race that seemed, at the time, a major upset. 

As, perhaps, it was. But the fact remains that, through all the elections of those years, the state was a contestable place for both parties, at least for local candidates. And this year? Thune is up for reelection, an attractive but challengeable first-term senator without a lot of legislative success thus far. And to fight him, the Democrats in South Dakota nominated  .  .  . well, no one, as a matter of fact. The party is so demoralized it couldn’t even persuade anyone to act as the sacrificial offering, and John Thune will appear unopposed on this year’s ballot. 

And here’s another sign that the Democrats may be washing out to sea.

South Dakota is one of those western states, big in land and small in population, that manages to have two senators and only one representative. Since 2004, that congressional seat has been held by Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Now, Herseth Sandlin ought, by rights, to be unbeatable. She’s relatively young, she’s cute, and she’s something of a Blue Dog in a state that likes a little contrariness in the people it sends to Washington. What’s more, she comes from an old political family that knows everybody in the state. Which is why, in 2006, she trounced the Republican Bruce Whalen by 69 to 29 percent, and in 2008 she handled Chris Lien by 68 to 32 percent.

Yes, South Dakota tends to turn against the politicians it thinks have become national figures—witness George McGovern’s defeat in 1980 and Tom Daschle’s in 2004—but Herseth Sandlin is still a long way from the ignominy of actually mattering in Congress. A bad year for her ought to be one in which she decides she shouldn’t try to trade up to a Senate seat. 

Instead, running this year to retain the congressional seat that she should own till the cows come home, she’s trailing 51 to 42 percent, according to the August Rasmussen Reports poll. Worse, she’s that far behind, basically, a nobody. 

No, that isn’t true. The Republican nominee is a 38-year-old woman named Kristi Noem, and, in fact, she has emerged during the campaign as a vibrant candidate: smart, sharp-tongued, strong willed, and possessed of some real political skills. South Dakota is basically ranchers and ranch-minded town-dwellers in the western half of the state, and farmers and the farm-minded in the eastern half. Noem comes from well east, over toward the Minnesota border—but she comes from a ranch there, raising Angus cows and quarter horses, which puts her in well with both sides of the ancient prairie divide.

Still, Noem is merely a two-term state representative, without much statewide recognition to work from. Yes, she impressed her colleagues enough to be chosen as assistant majority leader in the state House of Representatives. She convinced Ted Hustead, of the family that owns Wall Drug, a major tourist attraction, to be the official treasurer of her campaign, and she got the Thune campaign to back her during the primaries. But she also drives like a maniac on those lonely South Dakota roads: over 20 traffic tickets since 1989, with the most recent this year, for driving 94 miles an hour—a record unfortunately reminiscent of Bill Janklow, the longtime Republican power in the state, whose manslaughter conviction in 2003 opened up the congressional seat for Herseth Sandlin. 

What’s more, Noem never graduated from college. (The lengths to which her official website goes to explain this seem mostly embarrassing; Noem would be better advised to run against Herseth Sandlin’s boast of an out-of-state law degree from Georgetown.)

In other words, during any normal election cycle, we wouldn’t have found out what a terrific candidate Kristi Noem is because she wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity to show us. But that’s the point. This isn’t a normal election cycle. 

Noem’s stands on the issues are pretty standard-issue conservative—strongly pro-life, hardline on support for the military, against gun control—with a little Tea Party tinge to her rhetoric on economics (although, in response to ads targeted at senior citizens, she’s recently announced that she opposes privatizing Social Security). And Herseth Sandlin is a pretty standard-issue centrist Democrat who voted, for instance, against the enormous health care bill this year (although, the Rapid City Journal has reported, she kept a potential challenger out of the Democratic primary by promising secretly that she would not vote to repeal the bill).

Campaigning back home, far from her Washington haunts, Herseth Sandlin has already tacked about as far to the right as she can possibly manage. It might not be enough to save her. Do some traveling across the state, from Edgemont to Sisseton along one diagonal or Buffalo to Elk Point along the other—miles of broken country to the west and flat prairie to the east. And what you’ll learn is that there’s one problem Stephanie Herseth Sandlin can’t talk or wiggle her way out of: the “D” that follows her name. 

Kristi Noem would make a good, conservative congresswoman, but if she wins, it will be in large part because her state can’t bring itself to vote for anyone on the Democratic ticket this year. If South Dakota is a bellwether, a synecdoche, and a marker, November 2 will be truly abysmal for the Democrats. Just when you thought the tide had slipped out about as far as it was going to, out it slips some more. 

Joseph Bottum, a native of South Dakota, is editor of First Things and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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