Democrats won a Republican-held House of Representatives seat in a special election in South Dakota.
Democrat Stephanie Herseth led Republican Larry Diedrich by 132,236 to 129,292 votes, with all but two of 798 precincts reporting, according to results posted on the South Dakota Secretary of State's Web site. The seat was vacated by Bill Janklow, who resigned Jan. 20 after being convicted of manslaughter in a traffic accident last year.
The win suggests Democrats could blunt Republicans' efforts to expand their House majority in November's elections, said Amy Walter, an editor for the Cook Political Report, a Washington- based newsletter that evaluates House and Senate races.
``The environment in general is not very good for Republicans,'' Walter said. President George W. Bush's approval rating fell to the lowest levels of his presidency in polls last week by ABC News/Washington Post and CBS News.
The South Dakota race, one of 14 Walter rates a ``toss-up'' this year, attracted national support from both parties. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California donated $20,000 to Herseth through her Political Action Committee, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland gave $10,000. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, donated $15,000 to Diedrich, and Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri each gave $10,000.
Republicans have held the South Dakota's lone House seat since 1996. Democrats Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson hold the Senate seats. The Cook report rates Daschle's race against former Republican Representative John Thune a ``toss-up.''
Bush won South Dakota with 60 percent of the vote in 2000. Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said a Democratic House win in a state Bush won by such a margin is a ``very significant'' sign that the electorate in other states is open to unseating Republicans in Congress in November.
``There is clear evidence out there that the country is ready for a change in Washington,'' she said.
Republicans downplayed the significance of the South Dakota race and said they are confident they will retain or even expand their House majority in November.
``Even the most partisan pundit will tell you that Republican control is assured,'' said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Walter also said she expects Republicans will keep their majority in the House because there are too few competitive races. In particular, a redistricting plan in Texas may help Republicans pick up as many as six seats in that state.
Diedrich is an Elkton farmer, former president of the National Soybean Association and served four terms in the state legislature. He raised $1.3 million to Herseth's $1.8 million, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Herseth's grandfather was a governor of South Dakota and her grandmother was secretary of state. A May 10-12 Mason-Dixon poll found Herseth leading Diedrich by a margin of 49 percent to 40 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Analysts considered the seat to be safely Republican when it was held by Janklow, who was governor for 16 years before being elected to Congress in 2003. Janklow, 64, was convicted in December on all charges, including speeding and reckless driving, stemming from an Aug. 16, 2002, traffic accident. He was completed a 100-day jail sentence last month.
Herseth will hold the seat for seven months, then have the power of incumbency on her side when she and Diedrich face off again in a race to hold the seat for the usual two-year term.
Second Win for Democrats
Democrats added to their numbers in the House in February, when Democrat Ben Chandler won a special election to take the Republican seat held by Representative Ernie Fletcher, after he won election to governor. Republicans now have 228 seats, while Democrats have 206. The House's one independent, Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, routinely votes with the Democrats.
Still, Bush's declining popularity may mean Republicans won't expand their majority by much this year, Walter said. Bush's job approval rating dropped to 47 percent in last week's ABC poll, falling below 50 percent for the first time in that survey, due to rising concerns about the war in Iraq. The CBS News poll also cited Iraq among reasons Bush's approval rating sank to 41 percent from 44 percent two weeks earlier.
``You're seeing renewed optimism by Democrats, even as structural problems, like redistricting, remain,'' Walter said.