The Democratic brand in South Dakota is not very strong right now, and that has Stephanie Herseth Sandlin looking at her toughest fight for reelection since 2004 next year despite the fact that she herself is pretty popular.
52% of voters in the state disapprove of Barack Obama's job performance with just 41% approving. That makes him downright popular compared to Congressional Democrats who get a 60% disapproval rating with only 28% of South Dakotans giving them high marks. And when it comes to the Democratic health care bill that passed the House last month, which Herseth Sandlin prudently voted against, only 25% of voters are supportive with 59% opposed.
Despite all that Herseth Sandlin sports approval numbers that are well ahead of the curve in a year when the popularity of politicians has hit unusual lows. 49% of South Dakota voters approve of the job she's doing to 38% disapproving. Perhaps because of her health care vote Herseth Sandlin's standing with Democratic voters is a little weaker than might be expected- a 63/24 approval. But with Republicans her spread is 42/47, considerably better than what most Democratic members of Congress get across party lines.
When it comes to her reelection next year it appears Herseth Sandlin will have a competitive challenge from Secretary of State Chris Nelson. She leads him at this point by a 46-39 margin, but that's a close margin given that Nelson is an unknown to 59% of voters in the state. Among voters who do know Nelson 29% have a favorable opinion of him to 12% unfavorable and he leads Herseth Sandlin 49-43. So this race could tighten up as he becomes better known. Herseth Sandlin leads Nelson 76-11 with Democrats and 47-29 with independents and also holds him to a 62-24 advantage with Republicans. In a strongly GOP tilted state she needs every one of those independent and Republican votes that she can get.
Against a lesser known potential opponent, State Representative Blake Curd, Herseth Sandlin leads by a wider 52-31 margin.
Herseth Sandlin's standing is a good microcosm of the difficulties Democrats face this year in Republican areas. Even though she is personally popular and did vote against the health care bill, she still only has a single digit lead against a relatively unknown opponent. If Nelson turns out to be a good candidate this race will be highly competitive but it's hard to say there's really anything Herseth Sandlin should be doing differently- it's just not going to be easy in places where Obama and the Congressional leadership are so unpopular.
Full results here