The historic U.S. House campaign between incumbent Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Republican challenger Kristi Noem began last week, with Noem playing the Pelosi and Weiland cards.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rapid City physician Kevin Weiland could play an odd-couple role in Noem’s effort to defeat Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota’s first U.S. House race where both major parties nominated women for the general election.
There will be another name in the race, as well. B.Thomas Marking of Custer made the general election ballot as an independent, although his campaign is certain to be overshadowed by the Herseth Sandlin-Noem clash.
Noem, a state representative from Castlewood, started the campaign rhetoric quickly. After winning the three-person Republican U.S. House primary Tuesday night, she accused Herseth Sandlin of using her office for “personal and political gain.” Herseth Sandlin responded sharply when a reporter repeated the comment during a conference call two days later. She rejected the charge and challenged Noem to provide specifics on her allegation.
That’s where Weiland -- or at least his name -- came in. Representing disaffected Democrats angered by Herseth Sandlin’s votes against health care reform and other issues, Weiland began a late-March petition drive to challenge Herseth Sandlin in the primary. He got more than the signatures he needed in less than a week, but he backed out after being pressured by U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, an assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Weiland also spoke with Herseth Sandlin in a process that he described as both discussion and negotiation. He decided not to run after receiving assurances from Herseth Sandlin that she would reach out to unhappy members of her base and not support a repeal of the health care reform bill she had voted against.
During her primary campaign, Noem referred to Herseth Sandlin’s agreement with Weiland as an example of an incumbent trading a vote for personal gain. Noem made it clear last week that she’ll return to that allegation in the general election.
Noem didn’t respond personally to Journal requests to expand on her election-night allegation against Herseth Sandlin. Her campaign communications director, Terri Jorgenson, answered for her by e-mail.
“Herseth Sandlin placed a safe vote on health care reform and neglected to take a leadership role to work to prevent its passage,” Jorgenson said. “Then her potential Democratic challenger Weiland pulled out of the race after assurances from the congresswoman that she would not vote to repeal the health care reform plan. When she agreed, she gained personally from this political maneuvering as she didn’t have to face a challenger in the Democratic primary.”
That shows Herseth Sandlin puts personal and professional gain ahead of state interests, Jorgenson said.
Herseth Sandlin denies playing politics with her health care vote, which she maintains was based on weaknesses in the bill and the best interests of South Dakota. And she is particularly emphatic in rejecting allegations that she traded a potential vote in order to keep Weiland out of the primary. She said during an interview after Weiland decided not to run that there was no quid pro quo arrangement between them.
“There’s just no basis in fact for any assertion like that at all,” she said. “I think Dr. Weiland and I, when we had a chance to visit, realized that as we talked about the bill itself, while we disagreed on how the bill balanced costs and coverage overall, we agreed that repealing it wouldn’t be a productive way forward.
“That was a position I took prior to any conversation with Dr. Weiland,” she said.
As verification of that, Herseth Sandlin’s staff last week offered internal e-mail exchanges from March 25, several days before her conversations with Weiland. The e-mails said Herseth Sandlin was “not convinced that efforts to repeal the health care reform bill would be either practical or wise.” They also said she believed it made more sense to work on improving weaknesses in the bill.
But Weiland was still seeking a firm assurance against a potential repeal vote from Herseth Sandlin in their discussions the following week. Asked last week to recall those conversations, he said he felt like the negotiations produced the assurance he wanted.
“When it came down to it, my priority was to make sure Stephanie wouldn’t work to repeal that health care bill. We discussed it at length, and she offered assurance that that was not her intent. Once we had that clarified, I said ‘OK, I won’t run against you,’” Weiland said. “Whether you call it quid pro quo, I don’t know about that. We agreed that we needed to work on the bill, not repeal it. That’s what mattered to me, her assurance that we would work with the bill and not repeal it. I got what I wanted, and she got what she wanted.”
Weiland said he would “back Stephanie on this. I think we need to move on.”
Herseth Sandlin won’t move far without running into claims that she sides with Speaker Pelosi and the national Democratic agenda at the expense of South Dakota interests. Noem told the Journal on election night that she would “talk about Herseth Sandlin’s votes and the fact that she’s voting with Pelosi 95 percent of the time.” Herserth Sandlin staffers were quick to respond to that, pointing out first that Herseth Sandlin’s vote rating in a Washington Post review is actually 92.7 percent.
The review doesn’t mention voting with Pelosi. It lists the percentage of votes cast by a member that match the majority of that member’s party. But Jorgenson points out that Pelosi sets the Democratic agenda. And whatever the fine points of definition or slight variations in percentages might be, the reality is clear, Jorgenson said.
“What’s important to remember is not a slight difference in points, but rather the fact that Herseth Sandlin votes with Pelosi the majority of the time,” she said.
Going with party on a high percentage of votes isn’t unusual, however. At 92.7 percent, Herseth Sandlin is slightly above the overall House average of 90.6 percent and the Democratic members’ average of 92.2 percent. The Republican average is 88.8 percent.
The same review of the Senate shows that South Dakota’s two members have higher averages for voting with their party. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is at 95.4 percent and Republican Sen. John Thune is at 94.8 percent. The Senate average is 87.8 percent.
It is also worth noting that the Washington Post review includes all votes, including many of a procedural nature and various levels of significance. Another review by the National Journal focuses on key votes of substance, many of which can be controversial and clearly divided politically.
And Herseth Sandlin lands in the middle of that review. In 2009, she ranked as the 232nd most liberal member in the 435-member House. Her percentage score on key votes ranked her at 46.8 percent liberal and 53.2 percent conservative. That means that on the votes overall, she was considered more liberal than about 47 percent of her colleagues and more conservative than about 53 percent of them.
Herseth Sandlin, who has promised to vigorously defend her own record as well as examine Noem’s, will argue that she is a centrist. She will also argue that she’s no Nancy Pelosi.
“I’m running for Congress in South Dakota, not Nancy Pelosi,” she said.
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org