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TUPPER: Another McGovern nudges into SD spotlight

Seth Tupper

Few candidates in South Dakota are as intriguing right now as Matt McGovern. Granted, he's only running for the Public Utilities Commission, which some voters don't even know exists, but he's got a couple of things going for him.

First, he's a McGovern. Or at least he is of late. He wasn't always that way, as we took great pains to explain at his urging in this Sept. 5 correction:

"A story that began on Page A1 of Tuesday's edition contained incorrect information about Matt McGovern's name. He was born Matthew David Rowen but has gone by Matt McGovern-Rowen most of his life. He legally changed his name to Matthew Rowen McGovern in 2007 and now uses the name Matt McGovern."

However he came to be called "McGovern," that's the name that will be on the ballot, and there are few names more recognizable in these final days before Tuesday's election. That's because of the Oct. 21 death of 90-year-old former senator and presidential nominee George McGovern, Matt's grandfather. I'm not accusing Matt McGovern of using his grandfather's death to boost his campaign. In fact, he took some time off to mourn his grandfather's death, which would seem to put him at a disadvantage.

But it can't be denied that there will be some voters who recognize the McGovern name who otherwise would not have, thanks to all the George McGovern media coverage of late. And there will be others who associate positive feelings with the McGovern name -- again, thanks to all the tributes to George McGovern recently -- who otherwise would not have. I know it may sound strange to say that the McGovern name was not already golden in South Dakota, but let's face it: George's heyday was 40 years ago, so there are a lot of younger voters who don't know much about him, and there are many older, conservative voters who despise his liberal brand of politics. But George McGovern's death has neutralized both of those things to some extent. It has created a surge in name recognition among younger voters and taken the edge off the McGovern name among older voters.

The second thing I find intriguing about Matt McGovern is a commercial he's airing on TV. The first time I saw it was before the live coverage of the Oct. 25 prayer service for George McGovern.

Before the prayer service began, I had the TV on but was preoccupied with work and was not really paying attention to the tube. Then I heard something that immediately perked me up:

"Did you know Xcel Energy pays its CEO $11 million a year, and then gives him a luxury private jet to fly around in?"

I wheeled around and began watching. At that point, the screen consisted only of the words being spoken. Then Matt McGovern's visage faded in as he said in a slow cadence, "And you're paying for it."

I was hooked, and so was probably everybody else who had their TV tuned to that channel. McGovern went on to say that Xcel Energy now wants to raise our utility bills, but he's not going to let The Man squash us little guys:

"I'll fight any rate hike that forces South Dakota families to tighten their belts just so some overpaid CEO can avoid standing in line at the airport. I'm Matt McGovern, and I'll work for you."

I must say, that's the most effective political advertisement by a South Dakota candidate that I've seen in a long time. Amid the din of ads this year -- including from McGovern's opponent, Republican Kristie Fiegen -- this is one of the few that pierced the figurative wall of protection around my consciousness. This one got into my brain. Most of the others were just noise.

And the ad must be gratifying to McGovern's base of support in the Democratic Party, because it does what so many other South Dakota Democrats fear to do. It unabashedly advocates a traditionally liberal, Democratic viewpoint that the government should step in to stop fat cats from running over the common man.

Effective campaigning is not something I had expected from Matt McGovern. I've always been somewhat puzzled by his political ambition, because he's never seemed to fit the mold of a politician. In person, he's never struck me as charismatic or even particularly friendly. When he was considering a run a couple of years ago against John Thune for a Senate seat, I thought it was laughable. Matt McGovern clearly was no match politically for the likes of John Thune.

But our own Tom Lawrence, who attended the McGovern prayer service and funeral, said he's been told that Matt McGovern is improving at the kind of retail politics for which George McGovern was known.

And this all comes amid polling that shows McGovern catching up to and passing Fiegen. Nielson Brothers Polling -- which I acknowledge is a young firm not trusted by all political observers -- reported Thursday that McGovern has taken a lead after initially trailing Fiegen.

McGovern led Fiegen by 6 percentage points, 45 to 39 percent, in the poll. Libertarian Russell Clarke, whom NBP previously indicated may be peeling support from Fiegen, received 5 percent support, and 11 percent of respondents said they are undecided.

Thursday night, I noticed another sign that Republicans are worried about a McGovern victory: an attack ad on TV noting his out-of-state roots and name change. It takes real talent for a PUC candidate to attract even a minimal amount of voter attention, let alone an attack ad. In a way, the attack serves to further legitimize McGovern's candidacy and future political potential.

A McGovern win would be a surprise. From 1957 to 1981, there were only two years that South Dakota lacked a McGovern in elected office, but there's been a three-decade drought since then. After the passage of all that time and with George McGovern now dead, the last thing anybody would have expected is another McGovern in office.

Stranger things have happened, especially in politics.