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GOP Flailing in Search For Herseth Challenger

Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) hails from one of the reddest of red states. South Dakota’s at-large House seat is the sixth most Republican district held by a Democrat in the country. But the 34-year-old Democrat appears to be consolidating her grip on the seat, as the GOP continues to search fruitlessly for a candidate to challenge her.

Herseth, who has broken with her party by courting gun owners, supporting an anti-gay marriage amendment and co-sponsoring an amendment to ban flag desecration, garnered a 74 percent approval rating in a Public Opinion Strategies poll of 500 voters conducted the first week of May, which was paid for by a South Dakota business association.

Herseth’s largely conservative voting record has even earned the grudging respect of a former rival.

“I think overall people think she’s doing what she needs to for South Dakota,” said Larry Diedrich, the former Republican state Senator who lost a special election and then the general election to Herseth in 2004. “Obviously, her numbers are very good and obviously she’s doing a very good job. People’s perceptions are pretty good. She’d be a difficult candidate to beat, I’d assume.”

Despite her current standing in the polls, the South Dakota Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee flatly deny that they are waving the white flag.

“She seems to be in a quandary right now — somewhere between a Blue Dog and a rising star and I say you can’t be both,” said South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Randy Frederick, referring to Herseth’s membership in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and her wunderkind image in the national party.

The NRCC and state GOP point to Herseth’s recent vote against a bill that would make it illegal to dodge parental-consent laws by taking minors across state lines for abortions as evidence that she is out of step with South Dakota’s culturally conservative voters.

Russ Levsen, Herseth’s spokesman, said the Congresswoman opposed the parental-consent law because her focus is on education and adoption programs that will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in America.

Frederick identified four Republicans with high name recognition that he would like to recruit: Mark Mickelson, the son and grandson of former state governors; Barb Everist, a former state Senator; Bill Peterson, the state’s former House Majority Leader; and Dave Knudsen, a state Senator and former chief of staff to then-Gov. Bill Janklow (R).

Mickelson, Knudsen and Peterson unequivocally told Roll Call that they would not be candidates in 2006. Everist could not be reached for comment. If Mickelson had entered the race, it would have been a family rematch of sorts: Mickelson’s father defeated Herseth’s father in the 1986 governor’s race.

Jeff Partridge, a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, is interested in challenging Herseth. But he would like to get the support of the state’s Republican hierarchy before committing. Partridge sought the GOP’s nomination for the 2004 special election but dropped out before the balloting of party leaders in which Diedrich was chosen.

Much buzz on the prairie centered on Sen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) chief of staff, Matt Zabel, earlier this month, when someone registered an eponymous domain name that temporarily directed visitors to the NRCC’s Web site.

Zabel said through the Senator’s spokesman, however, that he does not know who registered and that he “has been very consistent in saying that he doesn’t have any plans to run” in 2006.

Frederick thinks Zabel is leaving the door open. “Until somebody in a simple sentence says, ‘I will not run,’ then the door is always open,” Frederick said.

Informed of Frederick’s remark, Zabel declined to rule out a House bid in 2006.

Herseth fully expects to face a well-funded, credible challenger in 2006, according to her spokesman. But it hasn’t been lost on him that the GOP has yet to nail down a big-name opponent whom she hasn’t previously defeated.

“2006 creeps closer and closer,” Levsen said.

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