Of his opponent, gubernatorial candidate says, "He's my friend. He'll be my friend after the election"
Rancorous and hyper-partisan midterms have met their match in the Badlands.
By Eileen McGuire-Mahony
Suffice to say, the American political season brings out all sorts. This year's crop of gubernatorial aspirants can, at time, strain credulity. In New York, Republican Carl Paladino carried on an extra-marital affair that produced a child – whose very existence he withheld from his wife for a decade. Once the scandal had broken, he responded the journalists' questions with threat of physical violence.
At Paladino's insistence, third party candidate Jimmy McMillan, of the “Rent is 2 Damn High” party was included in a gubernatorial debate. His canvas gloves, mutton chops, and go-to phrase have resulted in a talking doll.
Georgia's two candidates, Democrat Roy Barnes and Republican Nathan Deal, have jointly been awarded the “Pants on Fire” label by campaign fact checking website PolitiFact for their outrageously false pledge to run a civil campaign.
Colorado's Republican Party has stumbled so badly, first backing a candidate who collapsed under plagiarism charges and ending up with Tea Party neophyte whose mounting problems have cut his support down to single digits, that the Centennial State's Grand Old Party will almost certainly be relegated to minor party status for 2012. The effect of such an improvised campaign strategy has been to tear Colorado Tea Party groups apart just as the election nears.
Nebraska, meanwhile, saw Democrats barely manage to find a gubernatorial candidate at all. There are epithet laced voicemails and tax-payer funded junkets to Communist Cuba in California, flagrant violations of debate rules in Florida, and pending lawsuits in Massachusetts over who may or may not have stolen whose staffers. Massachusetts, unable to choose between the Republican and the Independent, is inexplicably on a path to re-elect the most unpopular sitting governor in America, Democrat Deval Patrick.
And Minnesota's Democratic-Farm-Labor nominee, hoping to appeal to Gopher State voters, boasted that the city of Rochester, home of the famed Mayo Clinic, is worth more than all of South Dakota. Mark Dayton better not be planning any upcoming trips to Mount Rushmore.
South Dakota, by at least one measure America's most reliably red state and perhaps the most overlooked race of the 2010 gubernatorial free-for-all has that rarest of things. The Republican and Democratic candidates, who have known each other for over 30 years, are good friends. It'd be a terriffic story, if America were interested in South Dakota's race.
Since admission to the Union, South Dakota has had, at best, token Democratic representation. The GOP has controlled the governorship since 1974, meaning the South Dakota Democratic Party is America's most drought stricken bunch when it comes to the executive branch.
The remarkable stability in political trends is just not enough to compete with urban hubs and the media friendly campaigns spun out of America's largest cities. South Dakota's closest claim to teeming metropolis is Sioux Falls, with just over 120,000 residents at the last census. It is also the fastest growing population center in the Midwest, but for now South Dakota is still so sparsely populated that it has a single seat in the House of Representatives.
Earlier this year, when Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was thought to be interested in running for governor, her status as a rising star among the Dems brought a few flickers of interest. Instead, Herserth Sandlin opted to run for re-election to Congress and South Dakota receded into the small sea of largely ignored races.
Scott Heidepriem, leader of the minority in the state Senate, became the Democratic nominee without a primary. The Republicans put forward five contenders, including Tea Party affiliated Gordon Howie. In the June primary, the state's current lieutenant governor, Dennis Daugaard, won just over 50% while the rest of the field split the other half of the vote.
With the nominees decided and no reason to expect Heidepriem could best Daugaard, South Dakota settled into a difficult-to-pronounce, difficult-to-spell bottom tier contest. Aside from Rasmussen, no pollsters looked at the race until the last few weeks, when a smattering of regional analysts conducted brief surveys. Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog, gives Daugaard a 99.4% chance of wining. Trend lines show no fluctuation.
Neither candidate has seen any ruinous personal scandal and they both have resumes that would challenge the pretenses of many political veterans used to high-visibility races in battleground states. Heidepriem is a Latinist and Phi Beta Kappa member. By 27, he had a J.D. and a Masters in History under his belt. He augmented that with an MPA from Harvard's JFK School of Government and spent the height of the Reagan 80s trekking around the far-flung expanses of rural South Dakota providing legal services to county offices. He's also published two books, one a biography of Republican Congressman Karl Mundt, a key figure in the House Un-American Activities Commission. In his spare time, Scott lives very happily in Sioux Falls with his wife of 24 years and their two sons.
While Heidepriem takes Daugaard to task, branding him part of an administration that, “enabled by their friends in the legislature—had come to cherish personal comfort and niceties, favors for political cronies and donors, and a preference for scoring political points over forging the necessary compromises to confront our state’s biggest challenges,” he also praises limited government and free enterprise before finishing up with a pledge to “ make State Government smaller and smarter.”
It's hardly a standard set of Democratic talking points, but Heidepriem is not standard Democrat. He began his political career on the other side of the aisle. No sooner had he announced his candidacy than South Dakota Republicans rushed a press release that accused Heidepriem of changing parties to further his political career and dubbed him, the “phoniest man in South Dakota,."
In the end, though, South Dakota's race is centered on the state's budgetary woes and what each man proposes to do about cost overruns. Out here, it's the Democrat accusing a Republican of being party to reckless growth of government. Term-limited incumbent Mike Rounds and Duagaard, his lieutenant, have balanced the budget...but for the past three years it's been with stimulus funds.
Heidepriem argues that what South Dakota needs is, “...to do is shrink the size of government, eliminate the deficit and balance the budget without raising taxes so we can reinvest in kids and schools and roads and bridges. That's my entire campaign in one sentence."
Daugaard agrees on stripping down the size of government, but argues that tax revenue, which means businesses, need to grow before the trimming takes place. He counters, “The economy and job creation — that has to be the No. 1 priority of the next governor." Such is the stuff of detailed policy discussions and precise economic formulations. It is, however, hardly material for prolonged shouting matches.
And that makes sense for someone who grew up using a silent language. Born to Danish immigrant stock on a dairy farm in Garretson, Dennis Daugaard's parents were both completely deaf. He grew up in a signing household, making him perhaps the only major politician in the 2010 race whose first language isn't even spoken. His wife is a South Dakota native and one of 12 children. Together, they have two daughters and one son.
Daugaard studied science at the University of South Dakota and went on to take a J.D. At Chicago's Northwestern University. He stayed in the Windy City for the first few years of his career, practicing at a small firm. Still, just as Scott Heidepriem left Boston for Brookings, Dennis ultimately returned to rural South Dakota.
Serving as Lt. Governor since 2002, Daugaard has worked on economic development; he's also promoted the decidedly un-Republican project of seeking to create tax incentives for wind farming. He also regularly fund-raises for and promotes the Honor Flight Program, which provides chartered jets to take South Dakota's WWII veterans on trips to Washington D.C., not least to visit the Second World War's Memorial on the National Mall.
He has long been involved with Children’s Home Society of South Dakota, which owns several shelters across the state, serving 2,000 abused women and children. Since 2002, he has been the Executive Director. Daugaard is also on record as a great admirer of Preisdent Calvin Collidge, something that would likely make him a darling of libertarians were he more widely known.
Limited sniping at policy stances aside, the race has sidestepped the poison arrows being flung in some races. Most of the attack ads in Tuesday's races are costly media buys. South Dakota is an exceptionally cheap state to campaign in. To date, Daugaard has reported total donations of $1.3 million; Heidepriem trails quite a at bit at $450,000. What they have brought in together wouldn't buy half a week's television advertising in California.
Both Daugaard and Heidepriem are advertising in South Dakota but what neither has is the financial support of their respective partisan Governors Association. The DGA and RGA, both of whom have smashed previous fundraising records, are instead hunkered down in powerhouse states with the potential to choose a President. Left to their own devices, the South Dakota candidates are instead evoking a very deliberate thread of nostalgia for simpler times in small towns - selling the very thing that makes major media skip over the race.
Dennis Daugaard for Governor' 'Meet Dennis Daugaard' ad.
Scott Heidepriem for Governor' 'A South Dakota Story' ad.
Given that, in a recent ranking of citizen political engagement measured by voter registration and turnout over the past several decades, South Dakota is #4 i the nation, with 77.1% of eligible voters actively registered and 65.6% making it to the polls,they may be on to something.
South Dakota's approach might not work everywhere. The state leans fiscally conservative so strongly the Heidepriem happily accepted an invitation to a Tea Party hosted debate where he readily explained his agreement with many of their concerns. At that event, it was enthusiastic supporters, not the candidates, who started amping up the tension factor.
When a debate organizer escorted one man into the hallway after he refused requests to lower his voice, the gentleman momentarily returned to the debate hall to announce, ""I was disruptive. I was overly enthusiastic. There are no hard feelings at all. I was out of line. I apologize."
At the end of it all, Heidepriem spoke to an NBC affiliate reporter, trying to explain his personal take on a race he will almost certainly lose. "He's my friend," the candidate said of Daugaard. "After the election, he'll continue to be my friend."
And that might be just a little too incredulous to fly outside flyover country.
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