VERMILLION, South Dakota (Reuters) - In the conservative farm state of South Dakota, Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s best chance of winning re-election rests on her ability to remind voters just how often she disagrees with her fellow Democrats.
Football fans staring at bar room TV sets see ads touting her ‘no’ votes on the healthcare overhaul, the auto-industry bailout and the cap-and-trade climate bill — all landmark policies of President Barack Obama.
Orange-clad pheasant hunters roaming the corn stubble may notice her endorsement by the National Rifle Association.
Business groups hear of her battles with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators.
That might not be enough to save her job. Republicans are poised to rack up big gains in the November 2 congressional elections, and Democrats who represent conservative areas are among the most vulnerable.
After winning 68 percent of the vote two years ago, Herseth Sandlin has now drawn a strong challenge from Republican Kristi Noem, another telegenic, under-40 mother with strong rural roots. Polls indicate the race is a dead heat.
“Stephanie’s done a good job — I’m just going to go with Kristi,” said Larry Buffington, a gym teacher and Republican from Gayville who has backed Herseth Sandlin in past elections but now has a Noem sign posted in his yard.
Nationally, Democrats hold the House of Representatives thanks to their ability to win in Republican-leaning areas.
Out of 435 House seats in contention this November, 255 are held by Democrats. Forty-nine of the Democratic incumbents are in districts where voters backed Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
Many, like Herseth Sandlin, belong to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and fiscally conservative Democrats who have often voted against top Democratic reform efforts like the healthcare bill.
Blue Dogs managed to get their top priority signed into law this year: a “paygo” rule that requires new tax cuts or spending programs to be offset elsewhere in the budget.
Despite their success, more than half of the Blue Dogs are in races viewed as a tossup or leaning Republican, and only nine of the 54 are viewed as safe for re-election.
In Alabama, Democratic Representative Bobby Bright has said he would not back Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker next year, while Gene Taylor in neighboring Mississippi has pledged to help Republicans try to repeal the healthcare law.
In South Dakota, even some Democratic supporters feel alienated by Herseth Sandlin’s carefully calibrated centrism.
“I feel like I’m almost voting for a Republican no matter which way I vote,” said Sioux Falls medical student Jennifer Tinguely.
“It’s a difficult position in a year like this to try to straddle the fence,” said the state’s Republican senator, John Thune, in an interview with Reuters.
Herseth Sandlin emphasizes her work to protect local interests like the ethanol industry and Ellsworth Air Force Base, the state’s second largest employer.
She says she would like another party member to challenge Pelosi’s leadership position after the election.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to convince people that I’m Nancy Pelosi,” Herseth Sandlin told Reuters. “They know that I have stood up to leadership and my party.”
South Dakotans haven’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964, but Democrats have regularly won congressional races, partly on promises to bring back federal largess.
“You bring home the bacon and cover your right flank by throwing a bone to conservatives,” said Northern State University professor Jon Schaff.
South Dakota largely avoided the deep recession that hit the rest of the country. Unemployment is 4.5 percent, less than half the national rate, and even banking-dependent Sioux Falls has rebounded. The pheasant hunting season, a big source of tourism revenue, is off to a promising start and farmers are getting a good price for corn and soybean harvests.
Still, state voters are worried by the rapidly rising national debt and budget deficits of over $1 trillion.
Noem has largely steered clear of social issues like gay marriage as she tries to tie Herseth Sandlin to spending increases that have added to the national debt.
“Here at home we make responsible decisions, we don’t spend dollars that we don’t have,” Noem told Reuters as she campaigned door to door in the small town of Arlington.
Herseth Sandlin said Noem was “parroting Republican Party talking points out of Washington” rather than considering how the state has benefited from federal spending.
South Dakotans would be better served by a moderate who can work with either party no matter who is in charge, she said.
But it is not clear how many of those moderates will be left after November.