Political Hay

Too Close to Call

Yesterday’s special House election in South Dakota clarified only one thing -- Tom Daschle could lose.

By 6.2.04

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Another nail-biter in South Dakota.

Less than two years after Tim Johnson retained his Senate seat, besting John Thune by only 500 votes, a special election to fill South Dakota's only House seat has come down to the wire; it took nearly five hours after polls closed to call a winner. Republican Bill Janklow resigned after being sentenced to 100 days in prison for second-degree manslaughter after he ran a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist, and Democrat Stephanie Herseth and Republican Larry Diedrich ran to fill the vacant seat. Herseth won by only a few thousand votes out of over 250,000.

The race received quite a bit of attention from the national parties; Republicans and Democrats poured two million dollars into South Dakota, or roughly $2.65 for every man, woman, and child in the state. A House seat, of course, means a lot when the majority party has only a 12-seat margin, but there's another rationale that's been kicked around, particularly by Democrats (likely because Herseth started the race with a huge lead): that winning this special election would be a "running start" for the November race -- particularly for Tom Daschle, who faces a tough fight for his Senate seat against Thune.

But the notion that the two races could be connected by any partisan trend is dubious at best. With about 755,000 people, fewer than in metropolitan Tulsa, Oklahoma, South Dakota is a place where retail politics goes a long way. With a lot of work, it's possible to meet a large number of constituents personally, glad-handing crowds and showing up at events in small towns all over the state. Daschle, who visits all 66 counties every year, is a master at this; South Dakotans who would vote for President Bush by 60% two years later gave him 62% of the vote in 1998. Bush won on ideology -- tax relief, education reform, and missile defense were all popular in South Dakota -- but Daschle and Johnson have been able win with their personal touch. Daschle is in trouble because Thune -- polling even with the majority leader -- plays the same game, and won 73% in his race for the House in 2000 before coming so close to beating Johnson in 2002.

That dynamic didn't exist in this race; Herseth was ahead by around 30 points in some polls a couple of months ago because voters knew her from her 2002 race against Janklow; Diedrich was running state-wide for the first time. Diedrich and Herseth will have a rematch for this seat in November; even with the advantage of incumbency, the tightness of this race suggests that Herseth can't take a win for granted in five months.

And neither, certainly, can Daschle.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.