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Outgoing S.D. Rep. Herseth Sandlin: Centrists in Both Parties Struggling

December 29, 2010 at 4:31 PM EDT
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In the second installment in a series of "exit interviews," Judy Woodruff speaks with South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin about being a moderate Democrat and the Republican midterm wave that ended her time in office.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to our series of exit interviews with key Democrats who suffered narrow defeats at the polls in 2010 — tonight, South Dakota’s lone member of the House, moderate Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Judy spoke with her last week as the lame-duck session was coming to a close.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, thank you very much for talking with us.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN (D), South Dakota: Well, it’s a pleasure. Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you were elected in 2004 with some fanfare. You were one of the youngest members of the House of Representatives, the first woman from South Dakota.

Six years later, what happened?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I think that there was clearly a wave of discontent against Washington. It was taken out on the Democratic Party, being in control of both the White House and both chambers in the Congress.

I think that there was a lot of undisclosed money that came into South Dakota, driving a message to paint me as a Washington partisan, which I don’t believe that I am, but it was a message that resonated, after pounding it away for a number of weeks.

And, you know, again, South Dakotans — you know, we thought we communicated effectively about a record of accomplishment. And we kept it close. But, clearly, given that it was a wave election, given the resources that were spent, I think those are probably the two main factors that caught me here as I was finishing up my fourth term in Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have said that you knew this was going to be a different year, that it was going to be a tough year. In retrospect, what could you have done differently, if anything?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I stand by the record.

I think, if we had had additional resources to drive our message home, the message of independence, the message of accomplishment in a number of key areas for South Dakota’s economy, our get-out-the-vote effort, if we had been able to turn out voters more effectively in certain parts of the state, that may have helped.

But it’s somewhat of a waste of emotional energy to kind of Monday-morning quarterback it all. But I feel proud of the race that we ran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your sense that the circumstances changed in Washington that caused voters to look at this election differently?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I thought it was going to be tricky, given the economic circumstances the country found itself in, given the very high expectations of a lot of different segments of the electorate had of President Obama, that it was going to cause some challenges politically. And it did. And I sensed that, even as early as the summer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that voters were looking for that you couldn’t deliver, I mean, and is it realistic?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I sure tried to help deliver compromise, consensus, bipartisanship.

But the tone of the Congress got off to a very bad start, with the economic stimulus package being passed in the House only with Democratic votes, only a couple of Republican senators supporting it.

And then I’m afraid that there were some decisions about moving the legislative agenda, that, in retrospect, we should have been focused on the economy first and foremost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have not always voted in lockstep with your party.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I voted against the climate-change legislation. Not that I don’t believe we should move to a clean-energy economy, and it can be good for South Dakota’s economy to do so, but it was started out as a very partisan bill in the committee.

And it had to pass only with Democratic votes. And, boy, that set the stage then for health care reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s a decision by the Democratic leadership, that and health care reform coming from the White House.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: Well, I think that the White House, understandably, wanted to tackle health care reform early.

I think that the president should have insisted that it be first among equals, and that’s where the House and Senate should have acted first. Wall Street reform was also very important, and a lot of work had been under way.

But I think that voters, especially voters in South Dakota — one of the reasons I think I was as successful as I was in my past elections is that I was an independent voice for the state. I did look for compromise. I worked in a bipartisan way.

And I think independent voters were really craving that from President Obama and both parties in Congress. And I think there are a number of folks that — in leadership and at the White House who share some of the responsibility in why we didn’t get more bipartisanship in the last two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in that connection, you were a leader of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats…

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the moderate Democrats.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … who were decimated. More than half of the Blue Dogs were defeated.

What does that say about the future, the prospects for working across the aisle, for moderates period going forward?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: I think it’s very challenging.

I think, when I look at the moderate Republicans who lost their elections in 2006 and 2008, it’s in part because they were holding the seats that we could win. Everyone else was in a safe seat.

And when you look at the Democratic side, that’s the same thing. I think redistricting is one of the significant threats to the House of Representatives and to that as our democratic institution and representative democracy.

I think that, as an at-large member, you know, I’m — you always sort of — you can’t get redistricted, right, as an at-large congressional district. But I have seen what’s happened to colleagues on both sides of the aisle over time. And I think they need to at some point really join forces, because, right now, the far right and the far left and some of the special interest groups aligned with those interests really take it to centrists.

Both parties at times apply their own purity tests. And the Blue Dogs held together on key fiscal issues. And we changed a spending bill earlier this year, brought it down dramatically, made it far more responsible. We were responsible for putting pay-go back on the books in statute. We were responsible for helping get the president’s bipartisan commission established.

But we’re the ones that are sort of ridiculed from the right and demonized at times on the left, lambasted from the left. And so it’s a struggle for centrists in both parties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, given what independent voters are saying, advice for your fellow Democrats as you walk away from this Congress and as they confront the challenges for the next several years?

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: Sure. If the Republican majority in the House over-reads its mandate, the same way many more liberal members of the Democratic Caucus over-read our mandate after the 2008 election, take advantage. Take advantage, the same way the Republicans took advantage of the other side, the Democratic side, my party, over-reading the mandate in 2008.

I think, look, no one ever wants to take their political base for granted. And I don’t think that anybody ever does. But independent voters deserve a voice, too. And I believe that the Democratic Party had a real opportunity, after the 2008 election, to show that we were going to be a party that could span, not just the spectrum of diversity, of racial diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, but ideological diversity.

And, at times, the Blue Dogs, we felt somewhat unwelcome in our own caucus. We felt that we were being listened to, but not heard. And, clearly, our message was ineffective. We were speaking with — we either didn’t have a messenger. When we did, we had three or four of them, and they weren’t all talking off the same CliffsNotes.

So, we have to be much more disciplined in speaking to the electorate, and not just the Democratic base, but to independent voters as well. And if the Republicans over-read the mandate, it has to be clear to independent voters what their agenda means for independents, who are looking for competent government and who are looking for a focus on the economy and jobs, and not radical one way or the other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, thank you so much.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And all the best to you.

REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Judy. I appreciate that very much. Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: Judy’s next conversation is with the departing chairman of the Transportation Committee, 18-term Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar.

When Congress convenes next month, we will talk with members of the new Republican majority.