South Dakota Field Is Set

Diedrich Gains GOP Nomination for June 1 Special House Election

Posted January 26, 2004 at 5:26pm

After winning his party’s nod over the weekend, South Dakota state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) termed himself an “underdog” in the state’s June 1 special House election against 2002 Democratic nominee Stephanie Herseth.

“We are the challenger and that’s how we will position ourselves,” Diedrich said Monday. “We need to work harder and smarter.”

Diedrich said he had put together a skeletal organization in the runup to the meeting of the state Republican Party’s executive committee, which selected the nominee, but had not yet begun raising money.

Herseth, who has been in the race since late last year, has spent the intervening months traveling the state and collecting funds for what is expected to be the most costly House race in South Dakota history.

“I was able to reach out to voters right away,” Herseth said. “That was a benefit both organizationally and financially.”

She said that her campaign raised better than $350,000 in November and December and had roughly $500,000 in receipts as of Monday. The campaign had $354,000 in the bank.

The June 1 House election will likely serve as an early test of the grassroots networks for both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R) — who will face off in the November Senate race — as the state’s primaries are also scheduled for that date.

Daschle has a nuisance primary that will allow his political machine a dry run of its turnout program, a development that is likely to provide a side benefit to Herseth.

Interestingly, as Herseth and Diedrich fight to fill the remaining seven months of Janklow’s term, they must also appear on the primary ballot for the November election that will determine who holds the seat for the next two years.

“Whoever wins in June will have a tremendous advantage in the November election,” Diedrich said.

It was unclear at press time whether either one would face a serious primary challenge. Both can simultaneously raise money for the special election, the primary and the November general election.

Diedrich was one of eight Republicans seeking the nomination following the Jan. 20 resignation of former Rep. Bill Janklow (R). Janklow was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in December for his role in a fatal automobile accident in August.

Diedrich won the nomination on the executive committee’s fourth ballot, triumphing over former Thune aide Larry Russell.

“We surprised them all,” said Diedrich about the executive committee results.

Diedrich’s victory comes after several aborted attempts to run for federal office. He first considered the House race in 1996, deferring to Thune, who won the open seat easily over former Daschle aide Rick Weiland.

Then in 2002 when Thune stepped aside to run for Senate, Diedrich jumped into the race to succeed him but dropped out five months later when Janklow, a four-term governor, decided to run.

In his 2002 effort, Diedrich raised $88,000 before he backed out — a sign, he believes, that fundraising will not be a problem in this race.

“My anticipation is that [fundraising] will happen quicker than you’d think,” he said. “When I dropped out I had raised the most money from South Dakota of any candidate on the Democratic or Republican side.”

Diedrich offered a preview of his line of attack against Herseth, claiming that the main issue in the race will be “who can hit the ground running on June 1.”

Diedrich pointed out that he has significant legislative experience as well as a business background, drawing an implicit contrast to Herseth, who worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., before moving back to the state in 2001 to run for Congress.

First elected to the state House in 1996, Diedrich won a state Senate seat in 2000. Prior to his service in elected office, Diedrich was a high-ranking official in the American Soybean Association.

“I’ve lived my entire life in South Dakota and know what the people are about and what the issues are,” Diedrich said.

Herseth retorted that she had spent 25 of her 33 years in South Dakota and dismissed the residency question as an issue.

“It is not unique for South Dakotans to leave for a period of time and want to come back,” said Herseth. She added that after losing to Janklow she stayed in the state and worked for a nonprofit organization, keeping a campaign promise she made last cycle.

“If they want to make it a campaign issue, I just don’t think it is going to work,” she said.

Perhaps the strongest argument in Diedrich’s favor is the Republican lean of the state, which would have given George W. Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2000.

“We have got a strong candidate in a very Republican state and are very much looking forward to this election,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.

Even so, Herseth begins the race with a significant name-identification edge over Diedrich gained from her stronger-than-expected campaign in 2002 and her family’s long political roots in the state.

A newcomer to the South Dakota political scene last cycle, Herseth wowed Democrats by cruising to an easy primary victory and staying competitive with Janklow for much of the general election. She actually outspent Janklow $1.5 million to $1.3 million but lost 53 percent to 46 percent.

Herseth also benefited from her well-known last name. Her father was a longtime state Senator who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986, and her grandfather served as South Dakota governor in the 1950s.

Coming off that performance, which Republicans argue was inflated because of Janklow’s unwillingness to attack Herseth on the airwaves, Herseth was seen as a rising star in the party.

She announced a second bid at the end of October, when Janklow was still on the fence about whether he would serve out his term or even run for a second term.

The South Dakota race is the second competitive special election scheduled this year.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, which was vacated by Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) after he won the governorship in November, former state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) is taking on state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) on Feb. 17.