Stephanie Herseth

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A fresh-faced woman with Western roots and an East Coast education gave congressional Democrats new hope that, after a decade in the minority, they might regain control of Congress on Election Day.

Democrat Stephanie Herseth captured a coveted House seat in her native South Dakota on June 1 and in so doing put Democrats 11 seats short of winning back the majority they lost in 1994.

Hersesth’s win also came as a victory for women, who now hold a record 60 House seats, out of a total of 435 seats. Women also hold three non-voting House seats representing the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Many analysts, however, refrained from viewing her victory as a sign that this election cycle might be shaping up to be another 1992, when women picked up two dozen House seats and four Senate seats and significantly narrowed the gender gap on Capitol Hill.

“We always look back to 1992, and that’s still one of those years that was so extraordinary,” said Gilda Morales, a project manager at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I don’t see that happening this year.”

Morales expects women to make only marginal gains or suffer marginal losses this year, adding or losing just a couple of seats in either chamber. “This was really a local race,” she said, of Herseth’s victory. “Democrats and Republicans can put their spin on it . . . but it was just a close race with a woman that had run before. She had high name recognition and was able to bring quite a few different groups of people together.”

Herseth’s grandfather served as governor from 1959 to 1961, her grandmother was secretary of state from 1973 to 1979 and her father, a longtime state legislator, ran a failed bid for governor in 1986.

Two Special Wins for Democrats

Sworn in on June 3, Herseth replaced Republican William Janklow, the former governor-turned-representative who resigned in January after a manslaughter conviction following a traffic accident. Herseth’s win in the special election comes just a few months after Democrats won another major victory in a special election in Kentucky, a state that backed Bush by 16 points in 2000. In February, state Attorney General Ben Chandler trounced Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr by 12 percentage points.

Congressional Democrats interpreted the pair of pickups as a promising sign for November.

The last time the minority party won two special elections in a single year was 10 years ago, according to Congressional Quarterly, a magazine that covers Congress. That preceded the so-called Republican Revolution, when the GOP wrested control of both houses of Congress from the Democrats. Now, Democrats hope their own takeover revolution is in the making.

“Democrats have proven we can win in South Dakota and Kentucky, confirming that we can win in rural districts across the country, from Georgia to Colorado to Washington state and everywhere in between,” declared Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California in a release issued shortly after Herseth’s victory.

Victory for Women

Herseth became the first woman elected to the House from her state and, if she wins reelection this fall, may also become the first woman from her state to win a full term to federal office. Two Republican women represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, but neither served for more than a few months. Gladys Pyle was elected in 1938 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of the male incumbent, Peter Norbeck. A decade later, Vera Cahalan Bushfield was appointed to fill out her late husband’s term in 1948.

Herseth demonstrated that a woman with strong personal qualities “can indeed win against both party-based and gender-based odds,” said Robert Burns, a political science professor at South Dakota State University.

Burns and other political experts said the race had no larger meaning for female candidates in other states this year. That is because Herseth and her opponent, Republican farmer and state senator Larry Diedrich, focused mainly on issues unrelated to gender, such as agriculture and tax policy.

Abortion did come up as a wedge issue with Herseth identifying herself as pro-choice and Diedrich as anti-choice, but the issue was not a deciding factor for most voters, Burns said. Moreover, Herseth, who had run a failed bid against Janklow in 2002, enjoyed a certain degree of fame before the race had even started, a rare advantage for female candidates.

Race Indicated National Change

If anything, the South Dakota race may chip away at conventional political wisdom that holds that Republicans have a lock on “red” states in the South and the West while Democrats own the “blue” states in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The two special elections, in other words, could be a good sign for other Democrats running in rural states.

As the minority party in both chambers, however, Democrats still have an uphill battle. Only about three dozen House races and a dozen Senate races are considered to be up for grabs. That means that for Democrats to take back control of Congress they have to win a sizable majority of the toss-up races as well as most, if not all, races where they are favored.

Meanwhile, both parties head into the summer months with their own distinct advantages. Republicans enjoy a considerable financial edge over Democrats. The latest fundraising reports filed to the Federal Election Commission show that House Republicans have $18 million in the bank while House Democrats have $11 million. On the Senate side, Republicans have $16 million on hand while Democrats have $7 million. House Republicans are also reaping the benefits of a redistricting process that largely went in their favor.

Democrats, on the other hand, are seen as benefiting from the current issue mix: Continued unrest in Iraq, the balky economy, high gas prices and uncertainty over the new prescription drug discount card have led to a drop in President Bush’s approval ratings and a consequent boost for congressional Democrats. An Associated Press poll conducted June 7-9 showed that 47 percent of those surveyed would prefer a Congress controlled by Democrats; 42 percent polled said they would rather have Republicans in control of the legislative branch.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

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