LIANE HANSEN, host:
Democratic candidates are feeling vulnerable this year, especially those running in any of the 48 Congressional districts won by Republican John McCain in 2008. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is South Dakota's at-large representative. She has a sprawling district, and this year, a huge challenge trying to survive a national Republican tide, as well as a tough opponent.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: It's state fair time in South Dakota.
(Soundbite of sheep)
NAYLOR: Down the midway from the sheep barn, past a couple of corn dog and funnel cake stands, Kristi Noem stands in front of the Republican Party's booth, wearing her signature red cowboy boots, jeans and a red and white flannel shirt.
Ms. KRISTI NOEM: This is kind of the perfect weather though, isn't it? Yeah. Are you wore out? Time to go home? No more rides, no more treats.
NAYLOR: A two-term state representative, Noem is ahead in the polls in part because of her campaign against big government.
Ms. NOEM: People in South Dakota recognize that a lot of what has been coming out of this administration and this Congress and especially the House of Representatives in D.C. has been very detrimental for them and for their small businesses and ag businesses and for their families.
NAYLOR: The 38-year-old Noem has gone after Herseth Sandlin for the incumbent's vote in favor of the stimulus. South Dakota has been awarded some $1.2 billion in stimulus money, the second highest per capita amount in the nation, according to an analysis done by Pro Publica, the investigative journalism group.
The money has helped the state balance its budget and repave miles of roads. Noem says the state did look long and hard at the issue of whether to accept the funds.
Ms. NOEM: We asked those questions: if South Dakota doesn't utilize those dollars, will they go back to pay down our country's debt? And it wouldn't. It would have been redistributed to other states. So, we made the wise decision for South Dakota.
NAYLOR: One question that Noem has had to answer is about her driving. She's racked up 20 speeding tickets over the last 20 years, and two bench warrants were issued after she failed to pay the fines.
Ms. NOEM: My nature has always been to be in a hurry and to try to get things done, and that's obviously something I need to work at when it comes to my driving record.
NAYLOR: Miles of prairie and corn and soy fields away from the fair, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin spoke to the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce this past week. Over a lunch of burritos, chamber members listened in polite silence as their representative emphasized her work in Congress to keep spending in check.
Representative STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN (Democrat, South Dakota): For six years, as a member of the Blue Dog coalition, I have worked tirelessly to put rules back on the books to ensure fiscal discipline such as we had in the 1990s, when both political parties could take credit for bringing the budget back into balance.
NAYLOR: The 39-year-old Herseth Sandlin has compiled a voting record she believes is in line with South Dakota. She voted against health care reform and the bailout of the auto industry. And she bristles at Noem's charge that she votes for Speaker Nancy Pelosi's agenda.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN: A majority of South Dakota voters know that I have stood up to the Speaker of the House when elements of the agenda she wants to further aren't in South Dakota's best interest. I think that on a whole host of the key votes, I'm right in the middle. I'm right where South Dakotans want me to be.
NAYLOR: Herseth Sandlin has won her last two elections to Congress by overwhelming margins, and she knows she has a fight on her hands this time, winning over voters like Dean Buckneberg, a Sioux Falls accountant who says he supported Herseth Sandlin in the past, but now isn't sure.
Mr. DEAN BUCKNEBERG: She hasn't given me any reason to vote against her. It's you look at it and you wonder, OK, if the Republicans have more numbers, can they counter some of that democratic majority? Don't know.
NAYLOR: And that's the challenge Herseth Sandlin and Democrats like her face this November, persuading voters like Buckneberg to vote for them rather than against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Obama and the party in power in Washington.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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