Many Paths to Victory: South Dakota

How to Win in South Dakota: Blue Dogs at the Tea Party

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Before leaving for the July Fourth recess, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota voted against a war-financing bill that included $10 billion

in domestic spending. That money would have helped core Democratic constituencies in her state, preventing teacher layoffs and providing more aid for low-income college students. But for Herseth Sandlin, who is emerging as a leader

of the conservative Blue Dog coalition, showing her bona fides as a fiscal conservative held more value. "There's no money in the piggy bank," she said, according to her state's biggest newspaper, the Argus Leader. "There are IOUs in the piggy bank, and we have to start making the hard decisions across the board."

Republicans across the country are hoping to ignite the anti-incumbent sentiment, much of which is rooted in local dissatisfaction over the slow-to-recover economy. Herseth Sandlin's Republican opponent, Kristi Noem, portrays the three-term incumbent as having "gone Washington," highlighting her vote for the stimulus package. "South Dakotans are frustrated with politicians in Washington spending like there is no tomorrow," Noem's campaign manager has said.

Herseth Sandlin, the third generation in a state political dynasty, has in the past been able to portray herself as a true independent who bucks the interest of leaders of both parties. Now, though, she sells herself mainly as a counterweight to the Democratic leadership, which she paints as a group of big-spending liberals who make decisions behind closed doors. Her claim, and that of other Blue Dogs in tight races, like Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, is that they have been working to curb Washington spending all along. If the Blue Dog caucus had been consulted earlier in the decision-making process, Herseth Sandlin says, deficit spending could have been curbed. "While we've been invited to share our concerns, and leadership has listened, not everyone is hearing us," she told reporters just before the Memorial Day recess.

The Blue Dogs promise to shrink the government and enforce "pay as you go" rules. "These common-sense rules require Congress to pay for what it spends -- rules South Dakota families live by every day," Herseth Sandlin's website reads. In trumpeting her opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program and other spending, Herseth Sandlin is evidently hoping to appropriate and neutralize criticism from Tea Party groups in her state.

Herseth Sandlin claims that the prominence of the Tea Party increases the clout of the Blue Dogs within the Democratic Party. As she said to a Roll Call reporter recently, "The center of America deserves a voice too."

-- Monica Potts

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