During her years in Congress, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin emphasized her moderation and her leadership in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats group. It served her well in several elections as she racked up big majorities in a Republican-leaning state.
But as Herseth Sandlin considers a run for the U.S. Senate, her Blue Dog past is causing problems as some Democrats criticize her for being too conservative.
"I’m perplexed as to why she calls herself a Democrat," said Anna Madsen, a Democratic activist from Sioux Falls. "Her votes reflect something quite the opposite."
Madsen and others have taken to the Internet to rally progressive Democrats against Herseth Sandlin and to try to find a more liberal alternative — such as U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of retiring U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.
Several votes in particular stick in the craw of liberal Democrats. Herseth Sandlin voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2009, though she later also opposed repealing that health care reform law championed by most Democrats. In 2004, she voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
"On a number of very important issues over the several years she was in Congress, she failed the test of being a strong Democrat and representing the core Democratic values we value the most," said Ryan Casey, a leader in a movement publicly urging Brendan Johnson to run for the office.
That’s not how Herseth Sandlin’s supporters see it.
"There’s no doubt that Stephanie is a Democrat," said Clint Sargent, a Sioux Falls attorney who has backed Herseth Sandlin since her early campaigns. "Stephanie believes that there are places where government can do great things for our state and our country. That’s the reason I’m a Democrat. That’s the reason why many of our friends are Democrats. We think government can be very, very helpful for people, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing like so many on the other side of the aisle think these days."
But Sargent and other Herseth Sandlin supporters didn’t try to argue Herseth Sandlin was actually the liberal people like Madsen would prefer.
Jason Frerichs, the Democratic leader in the state senate and a longtime supporter of Herseth Sandlin, said the vote against the Affordable Care Act can be “hard to get over” for many Democrats, but he downplayed it in favor of her other work while in Congress.
"It’s one vote and it’s one issue that we can agree to disagree with the (former) congresswoman," Frerichs said. "That’s the way the process works. If we’re going to beat someone up over a handful of votes, I think it’s a little bit short-sighted."
Instead, he said Herseth Sandlin’s work on agriculture and veterans issues made her a strong Democratic congresswoman.
Sargent said he likes that Herseth Sandlin sometimes breaks with the Democratic mainstream.
"What I like about Stephanie is she’s pragmatic. She’s not an ideologue " he said. "If you look at anybody who fits the definition of a moderate, that means they’re not going to vote the party line every single time."
Madsen said it’s how often Herseth Sandlin votes against the party line, and the importance of the issues on which she does, that frustrate her.
"There’s a variety of votes she’s made (against proposals) that are foundational, not peripheral, to Democratic core principles," Madsen said, referring to votes against cap-and-trade and for the Bush tax cuts as well as the gay marriage and Affordable Care Act votes.
Herseth Sandlin declined to comment.
Political scientists say it’s no secret that Herseth Sandlin was conservative — for a Democrat. But her voting record was still very distinct from even the least conservative Republicans in Congress, said Keith Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who co-created the highly regarded DW-NOMINATE system to analyze congressional voting.
"She’s on the conservative side of the Democratic Party. Of course, you have to take ‘conservative’ with a grain of salt," Poole said. "She is basically on the center-left."
According to DW-NOMINATE, Herseth Sandlin’s voting record on fiscal and economic issues was more conservative than 80 to 90 percent of all congressional Democrats during her time in the House — but more liberal than every single Republican House member during that same time, putting her near the center of the body.
Historically, Herseth Sandlin voted more conservatively than every single Democrat representing South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana or Wyoming in the House and Senate over the past 40 years, though her scores were close to Democrats such as Tim Johnson, Max Baucus of Montana and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota. Past South Dakota Democrats Tom Daschle, George McGovern and Jim Abourezk were all considerably more liberal, while the least conservative Republican, Larry Pressler, was significantly more conservative, according to the DW-NOMINATE system.
Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana College, called Herseth Sandlin a “classic case of a Democrat operating in a red state.”
"If you look at the Senate elections of Arkansas right now and Alaska, there are several members of Congress who are dealing with the same thing — they’re never going to able to be as liberal as some Democrats in their states would like them to be, because they’re in the minority," Wanless said.
Casey acknowledged that Democrats from conservative states have sometimes had to “disassociate themselves from the Democratic Party” in order to survive politically. But he said Herseth Sandlin went beyond what may have been necessary. As an example, Casey pointed to Tim Johnson, who voted for the Affordable Care Act and against the gay marriage ban before coming out in favor of same-sex marriage last month.
"I see a real desire out there from progressive Democrats who want someone who’s not afraid and certainly even proud to be a progressive Democrat," Casey said.
Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said much of the criticism of Herseth Sandlin is “coming from a group of people that are trying to push another candidate into the race.”
"I think that (liberal) South Dakota Democrats understand that the differences between them and Stephanie are so small compared to the differences between Stephanie and the Republican nominee, whoever that’s going to be," Nesselhuf said.
Despite her criticism of Herseth Sandlin, Madsen said she would support her if she ended up as the party’s nominee — if reluctantly, and while keeping pressure on Herseth Sandlin to “be a Democrat.” But Madsen, skeptical about whether nominating moderates is really the best way to win, said a candidate who unequivocally endorsed Democratic principles might be better for the party in the long term.
"I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth it to throw all of our efforts to an election, and possibly losing it, just so we could reclaim our identity," Madsen said.