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Will Herseth Sandlin Gamble on a Gubernatorial Run?

Correction Appended

If Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) runs for governor in 2010, her South Dakota at-large seat would become a prime pickup opportunity for House Republicans next year.

With the exception of her first election, the four-term Democrat has won re-election in traditionally Republican territory by large margins. But with a looming open-seat gubernatorial race in 2010, Herseth Sandlin is eyeing a prime opportunity to move back to the Coyote State.

Some Washington, D.C., Democrats are doubtful that Herseth Sandlin would leave what appears to have become a relatively safe House seat for her and a top position within the Blue Dog caucus for what could be a competitive gubernatorial race. But in a recent interview with Roll Call, Herseth Sandlin said she is still considering running for higher office next year.

“I haven’t ruled anything out,— she said. “But I’m not going to make a final decision until this summer on what office I’ll be seeking in 2010.—

Nathan Peterson, a Democratic consultant based in South Dakota, said he thinks there’s a 50 percent chance that Herseth Sandlin will end up running for governor in 2010.

“She is a very strong candidate for either office, whether she decides to run for re-election to the House or if she runs for governor,— Peterson said. “If she did run for governor, it would probably be a little more of a challenge.—

Not only are several Republicans — including a statewide officer and several elected officials — already eyeing gubernatorial bids, but a Democrat has not held the governor’s office in South Dakota since 1979.

That hasn’t stopped some national Democrats from asking Herseth Sandlin to run. A South Dakota native, Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Nathan Daschle has known Herseth Sandlin for years. The son of former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), he has had several conversations about the race with Herseth Sandlin.

“If she decides to run for governor, [her House seat] would be very competitive,— Peterson said. “I think Republicans would have a decent shot of picking it up.—

Republicans are already talking to candidates in South Dakota who might be willing to challenge Herseth Sandlin, whether or not she runs for governor. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has spoken with South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson (R) several times asking him to run for the seat.

“Stephanie Herseth Sandlin may talk like a Blue Dog at home, but she has done nothing to stand up to the Obama-Pelosi spending agenda that her voters in South Dakota oppose,— NRCC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said.

Nelson has already won statewide office twice in the past, winning a race to become secretary of state by a 14-point margin in 2002 and then running unopposed in his 2006 re-election campaign. In an interview, Nelson confirmed his interest in running for the at-large seat and said he would make a final decision this fall.

“I am term-limited in 2010,— Nelson said. “I am considering some other options, including U.S. House.—

He added that while a potential Herseth Sandlin run for governor would not be the deciding factor for him, it will play a role in his final decision.

“It’s certainly something that will be part of the considerations, but it certainly won’t be the determinate,— Nelson said.

Nelson would be the odds-on favorite of party officials to run for the seat, although several other GOP candidates are looking at the race. Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) would also be a strong candidate, although he is much more likely to run for governor.

A handful of Democrats are also thinking about running if Herseth Sandlin retires from the House. According to one local Democrat, state Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem could run, as well as Sioux Falls businessman Mike Huether.

But none of the possible Democratic candidates are as well-known or as popular as Herseth Sandlin in the state.

A recent Research 2000 poll paid for by the liberal Web site Daily Kos showed Herseth Sandlin with a 53 percent favorable rating. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) had similar support, boasting a 57 percent favorable rating from the surveyed 600 likely South Dakota voters. The poll, taken March 30 to April 1, had a 4-point margin of error.

But for now, House Democrats are hoping she will stay and run for re-election. In an interview last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said he had not spoken yet with Herseth Sandlin, but he hoped she would decide to stay in the House.

“Stephanie is obviously a terrific Member, and that’s a tough district, and she’s doing a great job,— Van Hollen said. “Obviously we hope she remains a Member of the House. She’s doing a great job here, and we hope she stays.—

Correction: May 6, 2009

The article incorrectly stated Sen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) party affiliation.

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