KEVIN WOSTER: ‘Stephanie’ faces tough opposition

June 27, 2010

A sage old South Dakota Democrat recently offered this bit of insight into the U.S. House race in South Dakota:

“Everybody calls her Kristi, and that’s bad for Stephanie.”

It remains to be seen just how bad, of course. But the challenges for incumbent Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin this year are many.

She’s running as an incumbent in a year when congressional incumbency is more bane than benefit; she’s been at odds with the die-hard members of her party over key votes, such as health care reform; she’s a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state that is largely unhappy with the Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House.

And she’s running against Kristi, as in Republican state Rep. Kristi Noem. That’s the part my wise old Democratic friend was getting at: the first name thing, and all that it could represent in this election year.

There’s a comfortable familiarity in the use of a first name – just the first name – that has benefited Herseth Sandlin over the years. There’s also a degree of gender politeness that aggravates some women but surely doesn’t hurt in a political campaign.

When Stephanie Herseth first ran for the U.S. House in 2002, it was the name “Herseth” that she wanted to promote. It’s a name with a South Dakota political pedigree: Ralph the governor; Lorna the secretary of state and auditor; Lars the state legislative leader and competitive candidate for governor.

And Stephanie.

“Herseth” was the political foot in the door for a 31-year-old farm girl with a law degree from Georgetown back in 2002. That’s when she took on Gov. Bill Janklow in the U.S. House race in a gutsy run that established her as a credible future candidate .

“Herseth” was more common as “Stephanie” in that campaign. But “Stephanie” became more prominent in subsequent campaigns, particularly after she married former Texas congressman Max Sandlin and “Herseth” became “Herseth Sandlin.”

Voters grew comfortable with it. So did the first woman in South Dakota history to win a seat in the U.S. House. That part wasn’t easy. Starting out against Janklow was starting out tough. In a campaign where the favorite clearly sought to avoid the “bully” label, Janklow showed consistent courtesy to the daughter of his old political adversary, Lars Herseth. And he still won by 26,000 votes. But it was clear that there was a new force in state politics. And she was a woman.

When Janklow’s political career ended in January, 2004 with his resignation following a vehicular manslaughter conviction, the promising young candidate already known by many as “Stephanie” had an unexpected chance at Congress.

Selected by the Democratic Party for the special election, she got 132,420 votes to 129,415 for Republican Larry Diedrich, a farmer and former state legislator well known throughout the state’s agriculture community.

But they weren’t finished. They faced each other again in the fall general election, which Herseth Sandlin won by a comfortable margin of 29,000 votes.

Then things got easier, and she blew out Republican foes in 2006 and 2008. There won’t be a blowout this year. Far from it.

This won’t just be the Stephanie and Kristi show, either. There’s another candidate in the House race. B. Thomas Marking of Custer made the ballot as an independent. And he has pledged to bring a meaningful perspective and different voice to the race. What he won’t do is compete in the first-name game. He goes by B.T.

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