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Kristi Noem "the new Sarah Palin"

South Dakota

Rising star Republican challenger Kristi Noem, often referred to as “the new Sarah Palin”, defeated Democrat U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in Tuesday’s election.

With all precincts reporting results, Noem won by a margin of 48.1 percent to 45.9 percent.

Shortly after midnight, Noem declared victory, saying “I will do my very best to represent every single South Dakotan.”

“Now make no mistake,” Noem told supporters. “I think we need a strong dose of fiscal conservatism in Washington, D.C.”

In an interview early this morning, Noem said “I think my message resonated with the people, and I think because I run a lot of small businesses and farm, that meant a lot to people.”

“I also think they were frustrated with the way things were run in Washington, D.C., with the Democrats in charge.”

On Tuesday, Republicans won enough elections nationwide to gain control of the House but Democrats managed to hold on to their majority in the Senate.

“I think what we’ll see with the Republicans in charge in the House is a new opportunity to have checks and balances, and a new opportunity for both sides to work together in the House,” Noem, 38, said early this morning.

As Noem spoke to her supporters at the Ramada Inn, Herseth Sandlin teared up as she thanked supporters just down the street at the Convention Center.

“Tonight, we’re obviously disappointed but we’re optimistic, we’re optimistic too,” Herseth Sandlin said. “While we didn’t win tonight, we’re not defeated.”

Herseth Sandlin, 39, and her fellow Democrats went into Tuesday’s elections saddled politically with an economy that is barely growing and the detritus of a recession that includes a continuing 9.6 percent national unemployment rate and ongoing home foreclosures in many parts of the country.

Against that backdrop, Republicans hoped to regain 40 seats to take back the House majority they lost in 2006. Though less likely, a gain of 10 seats would give them control of the Senate.

The Republican win in the House undoubtedly complicates President Obama’s ability to enact his proposals over the next two years and likely forces him to fight off attacks on health care legislation and other bills he has signed into law.

As was the case in many tightly contested House races nationwide, Noem hammered at Herseth Sandlin’s support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and health care reform legislation.

Herseth Sandlin responded by lampooning Noem’s acceptance of stimulus dollars as a state legislator while criticizing her opponent’s support of it in Congress. Herseth Sandlin also maintained a constant drumbeat on Noem’s driving record, which includes 20 speeding tickets in the last decade and failure to appear in court six times.

Unlike her previous two House elections, when she won by 36 percentage points in 2006 and 40 percentage points in 2008, Herseth Sandlin found herself challenged this time by an opponent who matched her in personal characteristics, and by the foul mood of an electorate dissatisfied with incumbents, said Michael Card, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.

“Part of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s mystique has been, she was able to be South Dakota’s little girl,” Card said. “She’s obviously not a little girl; she is a hard-working member of Congress. But people almost treated her with kid gloves.

“This time, you have two young women who are both attractive, smart people and hard working. Their personal characteristics were virtually even.”

One thing Noem had was plenty of money, Card said. That newspaper and television advertising likely helped her to chip away at Herseth Sandlin’s base of support, especially among those upset with her for not initially supporting health care reform legislation. She now says rather than repealing that legislation, she’d prefer to make changes within it.

Whether that advertising registered with the 10 percent of undecided voters is questionable, said Gary Aguiar, an associate professor of political science at South Dakota State University.

Bob Gray, chairman of the Republican Party of South Dakota, said voter frustration with Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress certainly played a role in this election.

“There is an environment today in which people are mad at Washington today, and that anger came to South Dakota as well,” Gray said.

But he also emphasized the importance of having a good candidate, too.

“Kristi was a great candidate,” Gray said. “You don’t win a statewide race without a great candidate.”

Herseth Sandlin’s vote against the health care reform bill put her in a difficult situation, Card said. For one thing, it angered a key Democratic operative in the state, Steve Hildebrand, who was heavily involved in Obama’s presidential campaign and was a key player for former South Dakota senator and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Hildebrand threatened to run against Herseth Sandlin if she didn’t vote for health care reform and it failed.

“That feud with Hildebrand really created a whipsaw for Herseth Sandlin,” Card said. “She was damned if you do and damned if you don’t. She loses some of the vote for not voting for it, but she also knew it wasn’t popular in South Dakota. So she lost on both counts.”

The question for South Dakota voters then became, do they trust a two-term state legislator in Noem to carry their voice to Washington, D.C., Aguiar said.

Part of that discussion fell on issues like Noem’s driving record, Aguiar said. In this case, it apparently didn’t make a difference.

“I think there are voters out there who are more worried about those six failures to appear than they are with the speeding tickets,” Card said. “I just don’t think that sits well with South Dakota moralism.

“On the other hand, I don’t think that kind of negative advertising sits well with voters, either. If there was an issue to be made, it was on the failure to appear. But Herseth Sandlin didn’t make that case.”

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