Democrats see opportunity to win back House
Special-election wins put Democrats within 11 seats, but still facing big hurdles.
A win in South Dakota's closely watched special election this week brings Democrats within 11 seats of taking back the House - far fewer than insurgent Republicans needed to wrest it from them a decade ago.Skip to next paragraph
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For a minority eager to get back control of the House they dominated for 39 years, Tuesday's victory is a sign that the political tides may be shifting back in their favor.
But, even the most partisan insiders concede, the advantage for incumbents on Capitol Hill is now so formidable that it will take a tsunami to get over the top - and many more candidates like Stephanie Herseth.
Bright, energetic, and deeply rooted in South Dakota's political scene back two generations, Ms. Herseth looked like a winner even when she lost her 2002 bid for the seat to that state's governor, Republican William Janklow. After Representative Janklow resigned in January, following a conviction for manslaughter, she vaulted to virtual incumbent, with a double-digit lead in the polls.
Like many strong Democratic candidates this cycle, she fits her district. A Washington lawyer who kept up ties to South Dakota, she snagged an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, which spent more than $5 million in 1994 defeating Democrats who opposed gun control.
On Tuesday, she beat GOP state Sen. Larry Diedrich by nearly 3,000 votes - a significant margin in a state where Democrats often eke out victories. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle won his first House race by 139 votes; the state's junior Sen. Tim Johnson won in 2002 by 524 votes - the closest Senate race in the nation that year.
Despite the erosion of Herseth's lead to 2 percentage points, Democrats claim a significant victory. "If we can win in South Dakota, where George Bush took 60 percent of the vote, we can win anywhere," says Kori Bernard, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Following on a recent victory for Democrats in Kentucky, "It's the first time in 30 years that two Republican-held seats have elected Democrats in a special election," she adds. Democrat Ben Chandler (D) of Kentucky, the state's attorney general, won what had been a Republican House seat in a special election in February.
In addition, polls are trending toward Democrats, who are favored over Republicans 51 percent to 49 in generic congressional ballots. Most Americans now say that the nation is on the "wrong track," and President Bush's approval ratings are tanking to the mid-40s.
But political handicappers caution that there are high structural hurdles for Democrats hoping to take advantage of these trends, especially the impact of redistricting and the soaring costs of toppling an incumbent.
"There are just not that many competitive seats as there were in '94," says Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the Cook Report. There are only 37 seats in play in June, compared with 108 competitive seats in 1994. In addition, Democrats are defending 28 open seats in "some really tough places for Democrats," such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, she adds.