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In South Dakota, Candidates Work to Navigate Center-Right

ABERDEEN, S.D. — Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin holds a lot of sway with some Republican voters. But that hasn’t stopped South Dakota state Rep. Kristi Noem from distancing herself from the polarizing political figure in her challenge to four-term incumbent Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D).

Nicknamed South Dakota’s Sarah Palin, Noem said she has not been in communication with the former Alaska governor about the race.

“I haven’t talked to her at all,” Noem said in a recent interview. Palin hasn’t publicly endorsed Noem yet, but that isn’t something the first-time Congressional candidate is focused on.

“I haven’t thought too much about it,” Noem said. “Maybe it’s because I’m a new face. There is a real desire to find a label for me.”

She added, “People have been trying to put me in a box, but I’m just Kristi Noem.”

Noem also sought to distance herself from the tea party movement.

“I don’t consider myself a member of the tea party,” Noem said, while noting that tea party members have been supportive of her on the campaign trail.

Independence on Display

Noem’s move to separate herself from some of the more polarizing players in the midterm elections is a familiar path for Herseth Sandlin. The fiscally conservative Blue Dog has had to keep a certain distance from Democratic leaders since being elected in 2004 and has been promoting her independence from the party as a primary selling point to the voters she wants to send her back to Congress.

“Being in the sensible center, I’ve worked across the aisle,” Herseth Sandlin said last month in an interview after meeting with state party candidates and Democratic supporters at the Brown County Fair.

“Why put someone out of office just because they may disagree with a national party agenda?” Herseth Sandlin asked. “What I’m hearing across the state is the last thing we need out there is more partisanship.”

The Congresswoman added that she thinks Noem would “bring more partisanship” to Washington, D.C.

Republicans have tried to paint Herseth Sandlin as a lawmaker who has spent too much time in Washington and forgotten her home state values. In particular, they have been critical of her husband, former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas), and his lobbying practice.

Herseth Sandlin said she represents South Dakotans, not the Democratic Party. This Congress, Herseth Sandlin broke with party ranks by voting against cap-and-trade, financial bailouts and health care reform legislation.

As a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, Herseth Sandlin said she has focused on fiscal responsibility.

“We’re changing the way Washington does business,” she said. “I’m proud of my record, so I have no problem defending it.”

Yet some of Herseth Sandlin’s votes, particularly on health care, have caused heartburn among her supporters. She opposed the health care bill but has said that she won’t support its repeal.

Tom Katus, a Democratic candidate for state treasurer, said that Herseth Sandlin got “hit hard” by progressives upset because she wouldn’t vote for the bill and by Republicans who want her to repeal it.

Joseph Kraljic, a union worker from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, said he disagrees with Herseth Sandlin’s decision to vote against health care reform, but he is still supporting her re-election.

“A lot of the irritation of voters is the constant campaigning instead of doing the damn job they should be doing. If Kristi Noem gets elected, she’s going to do exactly what John Boehner says,” Kraljic said, referring to the House Minority Leader.

‘A Real Disconnect’

Noem is somewhat of an unlikely challenger. She didn’t decide to run for Congress until February. With little name recognition and money, she decisively won an upset in the Republican primary against Secretary of State Chris Nelson.

Following the convincing victory, Noem became a top Republican prospect and member of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program.

Noem will likely need a sizable financial boost from the national party, even in a relatively cheap state like South Dakota.

Herseth Sandlin had raised more than $1.1 million through the end of June and had $707,000 left in the bank. Noem had raised $577,000 through June and had $292,000 in cash on hand.

Polling has shown the race is competitive. According to a Rasmussen survey released in early August, Noem led the Congresswoman 51 percent to 42 percent. But a Democratic poll released Tuesday showed the opposite: Herseth Sandlin ahead of Noem by 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Noem said she will ultimately be successful because of the overall frustration voters feel toward elected officials.

“There’s a real disconnect with when they pass legislation and how it impacts [people],” Noem said.

Noem has been involved with her family’s ranch, hunting operation and family restaurant. She said that real-life business experience has given her a better understanding of fiscal issues.

Noem has been critical of Herseth Sandlin’s decision to vote in favor of the $26 billion spending package the House passed. She said that she would have opposed the bill but still voted at the state level to use the funds to help balance the state’s budget.

Herseth Sandlin defended her vote. “People are clearly worried about the economy and jobs as the No. 1 issue,” she said, adding that this will help fund education needs in the state.

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