SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Stephanie Herseth was seven years old when Bill Janklow was first elected to the South Dakota governor's office in 1978. Today Herseth, a 31-year old lawyer and the granddaughter of one of the state's rare Democratic governors, finds herself locked in a dead heat with Janklow in a race for South Dakota's lone House seat. Unlike the Senate race, which pits incumbent Democrat Tim Johnson against Republican Congressman John Thune, South Dakota's House contest has been a relatively low-key affair. Apart from the ubiquitous blue billboards lining the highways that urge voters to send Bill Janklow to Washington, this race has not had the national visibility of the high-profile and heavy-hitting Senate contest. And while many South Dakotans have very strong opinions about the governor -- who is, among other things, the nemesis of the state's 8-percent Native American population -- Herseth has nevertheless steered clear of the negative campaigning and attack advertising that Janklow's record seems to invite.
Janklow served two terms as governor between 1978 and 1986; he retook the governorship in 1994 and has held it for the last eight years. He is running for the House this year in part because he is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term as governor. Janklow is, at this point, a fixture on the state's political scene. He was elected South Dakota's attorney general in 1974, immediately following the siege of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists at Wounded Knee; as attorney general, Janklow prosecuted AIM's co-founder and developed a reputation as an adversary of Native Americans. When the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report in 2000 asserting that race relations in South Dakota were worse than in New York or Los Angeles, Janklow dismissed it as "garbage." In January, 2001, when talk of a pardon for Native American cause-celebre Leonard Peltier surfaced, Janklow took credit for convincing President Clinton to leave him in prison. And when a crisis erupted in South Dakota's juvenile justice system after the death of a female inmate, Janklow attempted, according to a piece in Mother Jones, to bar the press, state legislators and federal investigators from entering the facilities -- and posted the misdeeds of juvenile troublemakers on a state government Website, while publicly referring to them as "scum." When one Republican state legislator succeeded in visiting inmates, Mother Jones notes, Janklow threatened to fire the guard who let the legislator in and personally called and interrogated the girls who had spoken with him.
Yet despite Janklow's polarizing history, Herseth is avoiding running against his record. "Anyone who's been the chief executive of a state for sixteen years has made some decisions over time and has perhaps made them in such a way that people have a problem with," Herseth says, putting it mildly. "That is a large group of folks to tap into, who are predisposed not to vote for my opponent." But in the eyes of the Herseth campaign, Janklow's enemies do not need prodding. "Because he's been an important figure in South Dakota politics for many years, people have well formulated opinions," Herseth says. "Voters appreciate the tone of this campaign. They don't need to be reminded why it is that they may not feel comfortable voting for Bill Janklow for Congress." This certainly appears to be true, especially in the case of Native Americans, who are likely to support Herseth overwhelmingly -- simply because of whom she's running against, according to the chairman of a major South Dakota tribe.
Thus, Herseth's strategy has been to focus on her own plans for the future and to implicitly draw a distinction between her leadership style and Janklow's. The personality clash could not be more evident. During a KDLT-TV debate on October 15 in Sioux Falls, it was difficult to detect major policy differences between the two candidates. Both claim they support drought relief, cracking down on corporate crime and President Bush's position on Iraq. But Herseth's calm, methodical style contrasts sharply with Janklow's brusque, decisive pronunciations. Indeed it is this difference that Herseth hopes to capitalize on. When she was encouraged to run by Linda Daschle -- Tom Daschle's wife -- Herseth had no idea whom she would be up against. As it turned out, Governor Janklow entered the Republican primary in order to defeat his archrival former Senator Larry Pressler. Janklow took 55 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. "After I received the nomination I said to people if we'd talked a year ago I never would have imagined I'd be running against Bill Janklow who's been governor for over half my lifetime," recalls Herseth. But, she adds, "I thought fairly early on that it might not be a bad matchup." The reason, says Herseth press secretary Russ Levsen, lies in the office they are running for. While Janklow's stubborn uncompromising demeanor befits an executive, Herseth's conciliatory style and youthful idealism seem a better match for the position of freshman representative. "If I were running against Bill Janklow for governor I think it would be a different story," Herseth says. "Because I'm running against him for Congress, I think it's a good matchup."
And if the latest polls are any indication, it is a good race indeed. An early October KELO-TV poll placed Herseth ahead of Janklow with a 45-41 lead. According to Sioux Falls Argus Leader political reporter Dave Kranz, Janklow's behavior early in the campaign seemed to indicate he didn't want to be in the race, but by early October "he started running hard." The big guns in Washington also joined in. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran an ad attacking Herseth as a pro-choice carpetbagger (she has received support from Emily's List, a national group that supports pro-choice candidates). In the end, the ad was pulled -- which most observers attribute to Janklow's desire to claim the moral high ground back from the relentlessly positive Herseth.
But Herseth has not won over everyone. At JerMel's Family Restaurant in Sioux Falls -- where anyone running for anything in South Dakota pays a visit -- a group of middle-aged and retired Republican men recalled that "Stephanie stopped by the table here" and noted that "she's a lovely lady." In fact, one man insisted, "She'd get elected if she were running as a Republican." Others nodded in agreement. Beating a popular four-term Republican governor in a state that voted 75 percent in 2000 for the Republican House candidate -- John Thune, now running for the Senate -- may seem an insurmountable task. But South Dakotans rarely vote a straight party line -- as their current delegation in Washington attests. And Herseth's refreshingly positive style seems to be working in a state currently saturated with negative Senate campaign advertising. "Something we've been doing has been going well for us," Herseth says, smiling. "And we need to stick to that course."
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a former Prospect writing fellow and a freelance writer.