Diedrich, Herseth Face Off in TV Ads

Posted April 30, 2004 at 6:23pm

In a calculated risk designed to boost his trailing campaign for South Dakota’s open House seat, state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) on Friday ran his first ad highlighting a disagreement with Democratic nominee Stephanie Herseth. Herseth immediately responded with an aggressive defense of her position on taxes.

The Diedrich ad, which features him speaking directly to the camera in front of a maroon backdrop, attempts to walk a fine line between contrasting the candidates’ issue positions and being perceived as running a negative campaign.

In it, Diedrich says that while he and Herseth have pledged to avoid “personal attacks,” that if voters are to make an informed decision, they “also deserve a respectful debate about the issues … about where we agree, and yes, where we disagree.”

The ad points out that while both Diedrich and Herseth agree that country-of-origin meat labeling rules should be stiffened, they disagree on whether to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

In her response ad, Herseth alleges that Diedrich “tries to mislead you about my position on taxes,” adding that she favors making her tax cuts for families and small businesses permanent.

“I approved this message because I’m committed to a truthful campaign,” Herseth says in closing. “It’s clear that Larry Diedrich is not.”

The two face off June 1 in a special election to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned in January after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter after killing a motorcyclist in an accident on a rural road.

Although concerns about negative campaigning arise in nearly every race in the country, both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that South Dakota voters are especially touchy about the airing of negative allegations by candidates.

This sensitivity dates back at least to 2002, when former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby (R) and then-state Attorney General Mark Barnett (R) — both Republican primary candidates for governor — spent months firing a combined $4 million worth of negative campaign commercials at each other.

Voters responded by giving former state Sen. Mike Rounds (R) — who spent less than $150,000 in a largely positive campaign — 44 percent of the vote, which was easily enough to win the nomination.

At the same time, South Dakota’s airwaves were flooded for nearly a year with negative ads in the race between then Rep. John Thune (R) and incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson (D). Some voters were especially irked by the fact that many of the ads had been paid for by out-of-state sponsors.

“The sensitivity to negatives [here] is greater than it is anywhere else in the country,” said Dan Pfeiffer, deputy campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), who himself is in a tight race against Thune this year.

“We get people that say ‘yes we want to hear the issue differences, but no, don’t go negative,’” added Danielle Holland, a Diedrich spokeswoman. “There is the appetite to learn the differences.”

While both candidates have been on the air for months, the new ad by Diedrich represents the first one that mentions the other candidate by name.

For now, neither national party is running independent-expenditure ads in the state, although both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have already bought ad time for the final three weeks of the race.

“It has been nonstop,” said Herseth spokesman Russ Levsen. “People have been on the air for the past three years straight.”

These worries had led Republicans to hold off on commercials that were even modestly comparative for the state’s June 1 special election, despite public polling that shows Herseth with a double-digit lead over Diedrich.

That lead is largely due to a name-identification edge that Herseth gained during her 2002 challenge to Janklow.

Janklow refused to run any comparative or negative ads against Herseth and forbade the National Republican Congressional Committee from doing so. He won the race with 53 percent, but Herseth’s strong showing gave her momentum going into the special election.

Republican officials debated whether their candidate could win by simply promoting his candidacy in a positive way. Diedrich’s new ad indicates that his advisers now believe that a contrast must be drawn — gently.

“Larry has always said this is going to be issue based,” said Holland. “Our ads will point out those differences.”

The NRCC hit Herseth last week for what they maintained were her varied positions on a constitutional amendment that says marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Democrats retorted that Herseth has been clear that she supports such an amendment.

It remains unclear whether Diedrich’s gambit will pay off, given that Herseth has already spent significant time insulating herself from such attacks and is clearly committed to actively defending herself on television.

In a campaign commercial that ran earlier in the year she decried negative campaigning.

“I think it’s more important to know exactly what I believe and why I believe it,” she said in the ad. “In South Dakota we can set a higher standard.”

Herseth moved from Washington, D.C., to South Dakota to run for Congress, but she has sought to emphasize her deep family roots in the state: Her father was a longtime state Senator, and her grandfather served as governor in the 1950s.

Campaign strategists have also found that it is harder to attack women than men in campaign ads, as many voters perceive such efforts as unfair.

“People in South Dakota elect candidates on the issues, and Stephanie Herseth has done a great job of outlining where she is on the issues,” said DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards. “People will judge her by that in June.”

Holland shot back that Democrats’ hue and cry about negative ads masks an unwillingness by Herseth to settle on firm positions on certain issues.

“There is a hesitancy to talk about the issues in depth because she hasn’t made her stances clear,” Holland said.