MERCER: A strange historyPIERRE — The number 19,134 is maybe the most important in the U.S. House of Representatives election this fall for South Dakota’s solo seat.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
PIERRE — The number 19,134 is maybe the most important in the U.S. House of Representatives election this fall for South Dakota’s solo seat.
That’s how many votes B. Thomas Marking received in the 2010 House election.
A retired government worker from Custer with foreign affairs experience, Marking was the independent third candidate that autumn two years ago.
He ran in a field that would have normally been dominated by then-U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, then-state Rep. Kristi Noem.
Statewide, Marking did the best of any third-line candidate in a South Dakota election for U.S. House in more than 80 years.
He received 5.99 percent of the votes. That truly made Marking the difference-maker between Noem, who won with 48.12 percent, and Herseth, who lost with 45.89 percent.
Marking’s popularity wasn’t some political-geographical fluke. He received 5 percent or more of the votes in 55 of the 66 counties.
The result: Noem became the first candidate to win South Dakota’s sole seat in the U.S. House with a plurality of less than 50 percent, rather than a true majority.
Marking meanwhile had the best finish for a third-line candidate in U.S. House contest since the 1926 election for the old First District seat.
The phenomenon of 2010 was that Herseth Sandlin couldn’t get out of the mid-40s in the pre-election polling.
This was despite having run in five statewide contests in the previous eight years and winning four of them.
Herseth (she wasn’t married yet) lost in 2002 to Republican Bill Janklow, but she won twice in 2004 against Republican Larry Diedrich in the June special election and the November general election after Janklow’s resignation.
She cruised to wide victories in 2006 against Republican Bruce Whalen and in 2008 against Republican Chris Lien.
But something happened among South Dakota’s electorate between 2008 and 2010. She lost the support of nearly 110,000 voters during those two years and never found a way to move the needle back up against Noem.
Digging into some other numbers provides a clue about what happened.
When Herseth ran in 2002 for the first time she raised more than $1.5 million and more than $1 million came from individual donors.
Both numbers were bigger than the amounts that Janklow received from contributors. Janklow, the state’s four-term governor, still won with 53 percent of the vote.
After Janklow’s resignation vacated the House seat, Herseth ran again in 2004. Her fundraising power was on great display again, too.
For the two elections that year she generated more than $4 million, and more than $2.6 million came from individual donors. Diedrich came up with more than $2.5 million with nearly $1.5 million from individuals.
She edged Diedrich in the June special election for the remaining six months of the term, getting 50.6 percent of the vote. She more decisively won in November for a full two-year term with 53 percent.
In the 2006 contest, Herseth turned increasingly to political committees for her funding. She raised more than $1.5 million, but less than $600,000 came from individuals – about one-fourth of what she had raised from them just two years earlier.
She rolled past Whalen with 70 percent.
The 2008 race saw Herseth Sandlin follow the same fundraising pattern as 2006. She generated not quite $1.5 million, with just over $600,000 from individuals. She had no real trouble against Lien, winning with 68 percent.
Whalen had been severely underfunded, drawing just over $150,000 from all sources. Lien managed to pull in more than $600,000, including some $442,000 from individuals.
Against Noem the situation was very different.
Noem raised nearly $2.3 million, including more than $1.9 million from individual donors. Both amounts were larger than Herseth Sandlin’s total of $2.1 million and $903,640 from individuals.
What does all of this mean for 2012?
There’s no third candidate this time. Where Marking’s 19,134 votes flow could well decide this election between Noem and her Democratic challenger, Matt Varilek.
But if early money is an indicator, Noem would seem to be in solid shape.
As of their June 30 federal reports, Noem had brought in more than $2.1 million including more than $1.3 million from individuals, while Varilek showed about $480,000 total to that point including about $430,000 from individuals.
Based on FEC records, Noem’s campaign received 601 individual contributions of $1,000 or more in the 2010 election cycle.
By contrast, Herseth Sandlin had 282 individual contributions of $1,000 or more in the 2010 election cycle.
So far in the 2012 cycle, through June 30, Noem received 562 individual contributions of $1,000 or more. Varilek meanwhile reported 91.
Rarely have South Dakota voters booted a first-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
It last happened in 1982, under extraordinary circumstances. Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Clint Roberts, as South Dakota’s two House seats were consolidated to one.
That appears to be the only time a first-term House member was ousted since at least 1912.
In other words, history isn’t on the Varilek campaign’s side. Neither is the current political climate.
Republicans and independents again swamped Democrats three to one in voter-registration gains during August. To make history the Varilek campaign will need indeed to pull a lot more than a donkey out of its hat.