If money is any indication, the hottest Republican House candidate in the country is Kristi Noem. The 38-year-old rancher has raised more campaign cash than any Republican house challenger in the country.
Noem has raised $1.1 million over the past three months, about twice as much as her opponent, Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD). And that money will go a long way: South Dakota's media market is one of the least expensive in the country.
Noem may need the cash. Herseth-Sandlin is a moderate Democrat with a proven ability to win, and win big, in South Dakota. She decimated her Republican opponent in 2008 with nearly 70 percent of the vote, even as the state voted overwhelming against Barack Obama.
Herseth-Sandlin is an avid hunter and one of the top conservative Democrats in the House. She's also from a highly regarded South Dakota political family; her grandfather was a governor, her grandmother a South Dakota Secretary of State and her father a leader in the state legislature.
But Herseth-Sandlin has never faced a challenger like Kristi Noem. She's a rancher, a mother of three, and a staunch conservative who is running on a platform of slashing federal spending and repealing the new federal health care law. She's also an avid hunter known to hunt elk with a bow and arrow. Her political views and physical appearance have led some to label her "South Dakota's Sarah Palin."
At her ranch in Castlewood, S.D., Noem told ABC News she wanted no part of that label and balked at the idea of the former Alaskan Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential nominee hitting the campaign trail for her.
"We're going forward making sure we're focused on the people here at home," Noem told ABC News. "I want them to know who I am and what I believe we should be doing and should be accomplishing rather than focusing on somebody else from out of state."
Money Rushes in to Mount Rushmore State
Shown on horseback in her ads, Noem's down-home image is accompanied by an anti-government spending message.
"I'm a firm believer that South Dakotans know better what to do with their money than the government does," she said.
The Republicans hold a sizable and unusual lead, evident in South Dakota in the disparate fundraising numbers between the two campaigns. According to figures released by each campaign Monday, Noem has raised more than $1.1 million in the 3rd quarter, nearly twice the amount Herseth-Sandlin collected. Noem has $777,000 cash on hand, compared to Herseth-Sandlin's $500,000. As of right now, no other Republican house challenger raised more this quarter.
Herseth-Sandlin has been quite critical of parts of the Democratic agenda and the President, especially on the health care bill, which she voted against (although she stops short of calling for its repeal). When asked by ABC News what grade she would give President Obama, she gave him a "C."
"I think on some issues, especially navigating some tough economic waters he inherited, he is doing better than people are giving him credit for," she explained. "But on some of the other issues, I don't think he did a good job. I think the leadership could be stronger."
Herseth-Sandlin is in fact making a campaign platform out of being willing to stand-up to the leadership in Washington, calling herself an independent, moderate voice for South Dakota.
"I've worked very hard the last six years to do what's right for South Dakota. I opposed the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry," Herseth-Sandlin told ABC News.
Noem said Herseth-Sandlin's voting record doesn't distance her from the Democratic leadership at all, particularly, "when you really start looking and pointing out her voting record and the fact that she is voting with Nancy Pelosi 9 out of 10 times, "Noem said.
Noem said a vote for Herseth-Sandlin is a vote for Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Herseth-Sandlin fired back that John Boehner "is no picnic for South Dakota either."
Government Spending, Fast Driving Become Issues
Herseth-Sandlin said she does not regret standing by Speaker Pelosi in voting for the economic stimulus.
"Now look, it was hard vote," Herseth-Sandlin told ABC News. "No one wanted to go into a new Congress with a new President and have to pass an emergency measure to stabilize an economy that was out of control and hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs."
Herseth-Sandlin may have a hard time explaining that kind of spending to a state with only 4.4% unemployment. The only state with a lower rate of unemployment is neighboring North Dakota, holding steady at 3.6%.
Recently, controversy in the race has centered not on the economy, but Noem's driving record, which became an issue when KELO-TV reported that she has had 20 speeding tickets and other traffic violations in the past two decades, and two warrants were issued for her arrest for failures to appear in court. Noem's most recent speeding ticket was in January when she was clocked going 94 mph on Interstate 90.
While Noem says she is "not proud" of her driving record, Herseth-Sandlin has drilled down on the issue, calling it a "question of judgment."
"I think that it indicates that she doesn't deem it necessary to abide by the limits that everyone else tries to abide by," Herseth-Sandlin told ABC News. "If you can't responsibly take care of your own business, I think it calls into question the level of responsibility you take in other matters."