Joseph Bottum has an entire article in The Weekly Standard that is supposed to show what an abnormal election year this is by describing the political difficulties of a Democratic House member from…South Dakota. It’s true, three-term Rep. Herseth Sandlin is vulnerable, and her at-large seat is listed on CQPolitics’ race rankings as a toss-up, but then again this is South Dakota (not the most natural Democratic territory in the country) in a midterm election year with 9.6% unemployment during a Democratic administration. Bottum claims:
If South Dakota is a bellwether, a synecdoche, and a marker, November 2 will be truly abysmal for the Democrats.
A brief review of South Dakota electoral history shows this to be silly. South Dakota has sent members of both parties to Congress, but it’s fairly misleading to treat it as an evenly-divided swing state. At the peak of Democratic political fortunes two years ago, Obama won just 45% of the vote, and Kerry and Gore both received a smaller share than that. That makes South Dakota fairly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and it makes South Dakota very different from the many swing districts where control of the House will be decided. What is interesting about Bottum’s “scarlet D” conceit in the article is that it is hardly a given that Herseth Sandlin is going to lose. There are some Democratic incumbents in the South and elsewhere who are going to lose and there is pretty much nothing they can do to stop it. In South Dakota, there is a Blue Dog Democrat who has voted the right way on controversial legislation as far as most of her constituents are concerned, she is personally popular, and her worst election result was in 2004 with 53% of the vote (running 15 points ahead of Kerry). She also has a better than two-to-one money advantage over her challenger, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense how she would lose. There must be any number of more vulnerable House incumbents from more representative districts that would tell us something significant about the public mood right now. Given the polling we’ve been seeing, reporting on the possible loss of a Democrat in South Dakota tells us almost nothing.