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Democrat Stephanie Herseth's slim victory over Republican Larry Diedrich in last week's special election to fill South Dakota's at-large House seat has helped to keep the spring in the step of House Democrats. They were already riding high from Democrat Ben Chandler's victory in the February 17 special election in Kentucky's 6th District.

Democrats are eager to read enormous significance into their latest pickup. Is Herseth's triumph a sign that President Bush's weak polling numbers are hurting House Republicans? Does it mean that Democrats can look forward to breakthroughs this fall in other Republican-leaning "red" states?

Herseth's 51-to-49 percent win is certainly a morale booster for Democrats, but there's little evidence that it is the start of a pro-Democratic wave. Herseth, who narrowly lost her 2002 bid for the seat, started this race with tremendous name identification -- most of it positive -- and essentially ran as the incumbent. The election was to fill the seat left vacant when GOP Rep. Bill Janklow resigned after his conviction for vehicular manslaughter.

Most congressional contests resemble football games, with the opposing sides slamming into each other. This race was more like a chess match. The candidates made very deliberate and strategic moves, often pausing to wait for the other side's next move. Conventional political tactics suggested that Diedrich, trailing a well-known candidate (Herseth at one point had a 30-point lead) should have gone on the offensive early. But in a special election in an already over-saturated media market, conventional wisdom isn't worth much.

For Diedrich, running ads that voters perceived as too negative could have backfired because, early on, Herseth had set a trap for her opponent, by airing ads that called for a positive campaign. The Herseth strategy was to put Diedrich in the same sort of bind that she'd been caught in during the 2002 campaign, when she lost to then-Gov. Janklow. Running against a better-known candidate, Herseth was hamstrung by Janklow's decision to stay positive, even as the race got close. Going negative could have tarnished Herseth's image and handed Janklow a chance to cry foul.

In this year's race, Diedrich knew he could count on the state's Republican tilt to help him close in on Herseth, but he also needed to strongly contrast himself with her. Ultimately, he failed to do that.

Herseth was also helped by the heavy turnout, which was 56 percent statewide. More important, turnout in Democratic-leaning Minnehaha County (Sioux Falls) was 59 percent. In Republican-leaning Pennington County (Rapid City), it was just 53 percent. Diedrich ran better in many counties than former Rep. John Thune did in his unsuccessful 2002 Senate campaign, but Diedrich had a poorer showing than Thune in Minnehaha.

So, does Herseth's success indicate that Bush's slide is hurting House Republicans? Bush carried South Dakota with 60 percent of the vote in 2000. Certainly, Diedrich would have preferred that the president were more popular than he is at the moment. But it is unfair to say that Bush dragged Diedrich down. It would be more accurate to say that Diedrich was unable to use Bush as one of the arrows in his quiver.

If this race had taken place in 2003, when Bush had solid approval ratings, Diedrich likely would have tried to nationalize the contest or at least highlight his connections to Bush. But with the latest South Dakota polls showing that Bush has a 14-point lead over presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, Diedrich wouldn't have gained anything by tying himself closely to the president.

The jury is still out on the impact of Herseth's victory on other Democratic challengers in tough districts. Her success certainly gives those Democrats a confidence boost -- and maybe even some fundraising help. But in the end, Herseth, like Chandler, was simply a stronger candidate than the Republican. Potentially vulnerable incumbent Republicans, such as John Hostettler (IN-08), Anne Northup (KY-03), Heather Wilson (NM-01), and Robin Hayes (NC-08) have proven track records against well-funded challengers. Any of them would be tough to dislodge.

This year's two special elections are not good gauges for how Democrats will perform in House races this fall. If anything, the fact that Herseth won in a Republican-leaning state shows that the campaign skills of individual candidates, not the candidate at the top of the ticket, might be the most crucial factor in November's House contests.

Associate Editor Amy Walter contributed to this report.

 
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