As Johnson mends, Dakota GOPers focus on ending 20-year drought

There’s a saying in North and South Dakota politics: The voters send Republicans to the state capitol to be conservative with their money, and they send Democrats to Washington to bring back other people’s money.

There’s a saying in North and South Dakota politics: The voters send Republicans to the state capitol to be conservative with their money, and they send Democrats to Washington to bring back other people’s money.

Whatever their motivations, Dakota voters have indeed split their elections along those lines for many years.

The illness of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) could open things up again in 2008 for Dakota Republicans, who have long struggled for a breakthrough in their congressional representation. If recent history is any indication, however, it will be hard-fought and expensive to make a dent in Democrats’ stranglehold on the Washington delegations.

Democrats have held at least five of the states’ six congressional seats for the last 20 years.

“It’s a phenomenon that has been going on for years and years and years,” said Max Wetz, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party. “It seems to confound a lot of people.”

Republican former state Sen. Larry Diedrich knows what it is like to be on the short end of that tradition. He lost twice in 2004 to Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.), first by 3,000 votes in a special election and then in the general.

“I’ve always thought that perhaps people see the money that they have in the state as more their own money,” Diedrich said. “Whereas, when you look at the federal level — maybe part of it’s the fact that we’re typically a recipient state — I think people perceive that that issue is more of other people’s money. It’s always a little more difficult for Republicans with a conservative message to win that argument.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) was able to convince voters of his ability to bring home the bacon in his razor-thin, multimillion-dollar victory over then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004, said Steve Hildebrand, who managed Daschle’s campaign and Johnson’s narrow win over Thune two years earlier.

Analysts are largely undecided about how true the adage is, but Hildebrand said there is “some credence to it.”

State-level Republicans in South Dakota have been very successful at attaching all Democrats to the efforts of some to enact an income tax, but on the federal level it’s a different frame of reference, he said.

“They believe Democrats are most successful at getting pork back to the states,” Hildebrand said. “So they want Democrats in Washington fighting for their pet projects, whether it’s disaster relief, farm aid, Medicaid.”

Thune was also able to tie Daschle to the Democratic Party that Daschle led in the Senate — a strategy that’s been tough to replicate, despite the states’ overwhelmingly conservative politics.

His win gave Dakota Republicans their lone standard-bearer in Washington. While Republicans dominate both state legislatures, both governorships and presidential politics, Democrats have occupied at least five of the six congressional seats in the Dakotas since 1987.

The last time the Dakotas voted for a Democrat for president was 1964, when both states voted for Lyndon Johnson. Both gave President Bush at least 60 percent in each of the last two elections.

North Dakota has had an all-Democratic congressional delegation since 1987 and has had a Democrat represent it in the House since 1981. South Dakota last had two Republicans in its delegation in the mid-1980s. Before that, both Washington contingents were dominated by Republicans.

Republicans could have an opportunity to win back three of those seats in 2008 if Johnson is unable to run for reelection.

Herseth is widely considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to replace him, and her candidacy would also create an opening in the state’s at-large House seat. North Dakota Republicans are also moving to give Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy his first difficult race since 2002 for that state’s at-large House seat.

The future of Johnson’s seat is in a holding pattern as he recuperates from a brain hemorrhage in December. He was upgraded to “fair” condition this week. State Republicans are moving forward as before in seeking candidates to run for those seats, whatever situation might ultimately arise, Wetz said.

Gov. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) was reelected in November with 62 percent of the vote and is considered the top contender for the Senate seat. Other possibilities for federal office include attorney Jim Seward and Barb Everist, a former state Senate majority leader.

Herseth was just reelected with 69 percent of the vote, and unless she leaves the seat — she is also mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate when Rounds is term-limited in 2010 — that seat will likely prove difficult for Republicans.

Pomeroy breezed to reelection with 66 percent of the vote. But despite a longer tenure, he appears less ensconced than Herseth. He endured several difficult reelection bids in the 1990s and won by four points in 2002.

As in 2002, Pomeroy won’t have North Dakota’s veteran Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad or Byron Dorgan at the top of the ticket, and a Pomeroy challenger could be bolstered by the presidential race.

Nick Bauroth, a political science professor at North Dakota State University, said the inability to beat the well-liked and scandal-free senators is easier to understand than the fact the Republicans haven’t been able to assemble strong challenges to Pomeroy in the last two elections.

“When you have more of a quality challenger, Pomeroy is actually pretty vulnerable,” Bauroth said.

Pomeroy will also, for the first time since his first term, be in the majority party, and Republicans say efforts to tie him to national Democrats could prove more fruitful. They are already issuing press releases tying Pomeroy to the actions of the new Democratic majority.

Pomeroy spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom said voters have recognized Pomeroy’s effectiveness in eight straight elections: “Through his hard work and influential committee assignments, he will continue to deliver for our state.”

Possible challengers include: Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark, Tax Commissioner Cory Fong, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, and Doug Goehring, who fell to the incumbent Democratic agriculture commissioner. Pomeroy’s 2006 challenger, 38-year-old Matt Mechtel, is also considered to have a bright future.

State Republican Party Chairman Ken Karls said efforts to take out Pomeroy have proven frustrating and that convincing the national party to help out in 2008 will be vital to finally cracking back into the state’s congressional delegation.

“North Dakota is suffering because we do not have a Republican in Washington representing us,” Karls said. “We have to get at least one Republican into Washington. It behooves us to do that as soon as possible.”