Poll: Herseth Sandlin, Nelson in virtual dead heat; other challengers close gap

March 29, 2010

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin lost ground to three potential Republican challengers in a state voter survey last week that could reflect anger over her recent vote against health care reform.

“I think the fallout is among Democrats,” political analyst Bob Burns of Brookings said Monday after the survey results were released. “And I think it’s pretty evident that there’s some widespread unhappiness with Rep. Herseth Sandlin among the more progressive Democrats.”

A survey of 500 likely South Dakota voters taken Thursday by the national polling company Rasmussen Reports showed Herseth Sandlin in a virtual tie with Republican Secretary of State Chris Nelson in a hypothetical matchup. The poll also shows the gap closing between Herseth Sandlin and two other candidates, state Reps. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood, and Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls.

Herseth Sandlin had 44 percent to Nelson’s 42 percent in a survey with a 4.5-percentage-point margin of error. A Feb. 23 survey by Rasmussen had Herseth Sandlin at 45 percent and Nelson at 38 percent.

Nelson said the polling affirmed the strength of his campaign for the Republican U.S. House nomination in the June 8 primary.

“Our poll number has moved from 38 to 42 since the last Rasmussen poll. The incumbent has slipped one point, putting us in a dead heat,” Nelson said. “The clear message to Republican primary voters is that Chris Nelson is positioned to win this race in November.”

Herseth Sandlin typically has avoided commenting on the campaign or responding to possible challengers. Deputy chief of staff Russ Levsen continued that policy Monday.

“When the time comes, she’ll be ready to match her vision for South Dakota up against the competition,” Levsen said. “Until then, she’s working hard every day for our state.”

But the third-term incumbent lost ground against the other two Republican candidates, as well. She still topped Noem 46 percent to 35 percent and Curd 45 percent to 33 percent in the survey last week. But that was closer than the Feb. 23 results, where she led Noem 49 percent to 34 percent and Curd 51 percent to 33 percent.

Noem said she is “exactly where we wanted to be at this point in the campaign.” And Curd said it’s clear that South Dakotans are “ready to replace” the incumbent.

But it was more Herseth Sandlin’s loss than any clear gains by Noem and Curd in this survey. Herseth Sandlin dropped 3 percentage points to Noem and 6 points to Curd since last month. Noem rose 1 percentage point, and Curd stayed at 33 percent. That reflects a price paid by the incumbent with her votes against health care reform a few days before the latest survey, Burns said.

“I think there’s a correlation between her successive votes on health care and the fall off in popularity among Democrats,” he said. “And I think that’s reflected in the poll.”

The fallout involved more than survey points. Days after the health care vote, Rapid City physician Kevin Weiland began a late rush to qualify for the Democratic U.S. House primary. Weiland needs 1,213 valid signatures from registered Democrats gathered by the end of Tuesday to qualify. Weiland campaign adviser Steve Hildebrand said Monday that depressed poll numbers and a likely primary challenger were prices that Herseth Sandlin paid for her vote on health care reform.

“Instead of taking bold and courageous votes that help everyday South Dakotans, she has run to the center and pleased no one,” Hildebrand said.

But other questions in the Rasmussen poll indicate that Herseth Sandlin might have voted with the majority of South Dakotans on health care. Fifty nine percent said they oppose the health care reform plan, while 58 percent said it should be repealed, 56 percent said it would be bad for the country, and 57 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would repeal the plan.

That general opposition to health care, however, came from a sampling of all voters in a state where Republicans have a solid lead in registration. Burns maintained that the dip in poll number is likely caused specifically by the Democrats in the survey.

Being an incumbent wasn’t an advantage in the survey, with 58 percent saying the country would be better if most incumbents were defeated.  When asked if their local congressional member should be reelected, 33 percent said “yes,” 37 percent said “no” and 30 percent were undecided.

Herseth Sandlin did get a favorable ranking from 52 percent of those surveyed, compared to 43 percent unfavorable.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com
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