Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D)
Elected: June 2004, 3rd full term.
Born: Dec. 3, 1970, Aberdeen .
Education: Georgetown U., B.A. 1993, M.A. 1996, J.D. 1997.
Family: Married (Max Sandlin); 1 child.
Professional Career: Clerk, U.S. District Court, Judge Charles Kornmann 1998-99; Clerk, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, U.S. Court of Appeals, 1999-2000; Practicing atty., 2000-01; Ex. dir., SD Farmers Union Foundation, 2003; Legal cnsl., South Dakota Made Store, 2003.
South Dakota’s lone member of the House is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat chosen in a June 2004 special election. Herseth Sandlin gave birth to her first child, Zachary Lars Sandlin, while in office in December 2008. The previous year, she married former House member Max Sandlin, who had served eight years as a Democrat from Texas before he became a victim of redistricting. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin grew up on a farm near Brookings in northeastern South Dakota, in a family with a fine political pedigree. Her grandfather, Ralph Herseth, was governor from 1958 to 1960. Her grandmother, Lorna Herseth, was secretary of state from 1972 to 1978. Her father, Lars Herseth, served in the Legislature from 1974 to 1986 and from 1988 to 1996. In 1986, he ran for governor and lost 52%-48%. In a state where voters expect to meet the candidates, the Herseths were well-liked and respected. Herseth Sandlin graduated from Georgetown University and its law school, interned with Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, a college classmate of her father’s, and then clerked for federal judges in South Dakota and Maryland. She taught at Georgetown law school and worked for a law firm in Washington. She turned down invitations to run against Republican Attorney General Mark Barnett in 1998. In 2002, she decided to run for the U.S. House when Republican incumbent John Thune decided to run for the Senate.
|Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D)||256,041||(68%)||($1,568,461)|
|Chris Lien (R)||122,966||(32%)||($606,781)|
|Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (69%); 2004 (53%); 2004 (51%)
As the House contest began, the clear favorite was former Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican. Blunt and plain-spoken, Janklow pledged to be a “sledgehammer” in the House. In the June primary, he beat former Sen. Larry Pressler 55%-27%, while Herseth Sandlin beat Democrat Rick Weiland 58%-32%. She was in her own right a dynamic candidate, articulate and at ease around people. She also proved to be a great fundraiser. With help from the women’s fundraising group EMILY’s List, she raised $1.5 million, more than Janklow’s $1.3 million. Herseth Sandlin, who was just 31 years old, argued that South Dakota had “a tradition of sending young passionate leaders to Congress,” and cited Democrats Johnson and Tom Daschle, then the Senate majority leader, and Republicans Pressler and Thune, all first elected in their 30s. She avoided phrases that might be construed as “liberal,” because, as she put it, “that’s not a term that’s respected here.” When asked about abortion, she would typically say she wanted to make it “as rare as possible.” When asked about gun control, she noted that she grew up on a farm in pheasant hunting country and saw no need for new restrictions on guns. Herseth Sandlin was respectful of Janklow. “When I made the decision to seek office, I never thought I would be running against Bill Janklow. He is larger than life, especially for people of my generation,” she said, noting that when she was in high school, then-Gov. Janklow took time from his schedule to answer questions for a report she was writing. His campaign also stayed positive. When the National Republican Congressional Committee ran a television spot attacking Herseth Sandlin as a carpetbagger, Janklow insisted it be pulled.
The two candidates agreed on many local issues but they differed in their approaches to Iraq at a time Congress was debating whether to authorize going to war. Janklow said, “I’d love to have the support of our allies, but it’s the American World Trade Center they flew the planes into. I’d love to have the support of our allies, but if we can’t get the support of these people, then in this war they’re not our allies, and we may have to go it alone.” Herseth Sandlin said, “We are looking at putting our men and women in urban warfare, hand-to-hand combat on the streets of Baghdad. I view it as a sliding scale. To the extent that we have little support from allies, the need goes way up for congressional approval. With more allied support, the bar goes down a little for congressional approval.” Janklow pulled ahead in the polls in October, and on Election Day, he won 53%-46%.
But Janklow’s House career was cut short. In August 2003, he sped through a stop sign in his Cadillac and killed a motorcyclist in Moody County. He was indicted, tried, and in December 2003, convicted of felony manslaughter. He immediately announced that he would resign. Republican Gov. Mike Rounds declared that the vacancy would be filled in a special election in June 2004, the same day as South Dakota’s primary. Herseth Sandlin, who was teaching at South Dakota State University and heading the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, was the obvious and unanimous choice for the House race for the Democrats. The Republican nominee was state Sen. Larry Diedrich, a corn, hog and soybean farmer who had headed the South Dakota and American Soybean Associations and served eight years in the Legislature.
Herseth Sandlin campaigned as a “fiscally conservative and ideologically moderate” candidate, calling for changes in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill and a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock. She supported abortion rights, while Diedrich opposed abortion and criticized her for refusing to promise to vote for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He also criticized her opposition to making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent and tried to focus attention on her lack of life experience. Herseth Sandlin, who was single then, said, “A lot of people today know women, or even have women in their family, who have postponed marriage and family-raising for professional reasons. Some of the stereotypes that were once out there are not so strong any more.” Herseth Sandlin started off far ahead in the polls. But Diedrich campaigned hard and caught up by late May. Herseth Sandlin won 51%-49%, with a popular vote margin of just 3,005. Turnout in the heavily Republican Black Hills area was low, and Herseth Sandlin carried the Indian reservations by wide margins.
She had to run again in November 2004 to secure a new, two-year term, and Diedrich was again the Republican nominee. As in the special election contest, the candidates debated frequently and civilly. Herseth Sandlin even gave Diedrich credit for lobbying an Appropriations subcommittee chairman for a water project that helped the state. But negative notes were also struck. Diedrich and national Republicans attacked Herseth Sandlin for roll call votes against making various Bush-era tax cuts permanent. National Democrats ran ads criticizing Diedrich’s votes as a legislator to increase taxes on gasoline, cell phones and hospitals and opposing abolition of the inheritance tax. At one debate Herseth Sandlin was asked how she would vote if the presidential election went to the House. “I represent South Dakota. And I’m going to put South Dakota first,” she said. When Diedrich pressed further, she said, “I guess Larry is parsing my words. I would vote for George Bush for president.” The race was overshadowed by the hot and even closer Senate race, in which Thune was making inroads in his challenge to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, a giant in South Dakota politics. While Daschle lost, Herseth Sandlin managed to widen her winning split to 53%-46%. In 2006, she finally had an easy contest, with a 69%-29% victory against Bruce Whalen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Herseth Sandlin solidified her hold on the seat in 2008 with an impressive 68%-32% victory over Republican businessman Chris Lien, beating him in every county in the state.
In the House, Herseth Sandlin’s voting record ranks her among the more conservative Democrats. She cosponsored a bill that restricts victims of a shooting from filing a lawsuit against gun manufacturers and dealers. She worked closely with Senators Johnson and Thune in their successful effort in 2005 to remove Ellsworth Air Force Base from the base-closing list. Herseth Sandlin became active in the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, especially in their call for fiscal discipline, and was elected as the caucus’ co-chair of administration in November 2008. She also co-chaired the Democrats’ Rural Working Group and served on the Agriculture Committee, where she was an avid supporter of increased production of renewable fuels such as ethanol. On the 2008 farm bill, she pressed successfully to establish a permanent disaster fund.
When Democrats achieved a House majority in 2007, she got the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. In 2008, the House passed her bill granting veterans the right to a preliminary hearing when they are seeking to regain jobs lost during their deployments. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped her for a seat on the speaker’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming—the only farm-state Democrat on the panel. Herseth Sandlin was also the only House Democrat in 2008 to vote against a bill clamping down on questionable practices by credit card companies, such as retroactive rate increases. The credit card industry is one of the largest employers in South Dakota.
Many Democrats see Herseth Sandlin as a future national star and a potential statewide candidate. A 2008 New York Times article compared her oratorical style favorably to President Barack Obama’s.