Group Targets Daschle in S.D.

Posted April 25, 2003 at 6:26pm

A conservative group based in South Dakota is rounding up financial backers in Washington to fund a nearly $1 million, year-long media campaign designed to “destroy” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) “credibility within his home state” and “end his public career by 2004,” according to a memo distributed by the organization.

The Rushmore Policy Council, which is spearheading the effort known as the “Daschle Accountability Project,” is a 501(c)4 — an Internal Revenue Service designation for nonprofit groups. It does not have to disclose its donors and can accept unlimited contributions.

Robert Regier, executive director of the Rushmore Policy Council, said the ad campaign is “one of the many things we have been working on for the past couple of years.”

He added that there is no timeline for the kickoff of the ad campaign but did confirm it is in the works.

The group has budgeted roughly $860,000 for the effort, including $380,000 for television advertising, $99,000 for radio spots and more than $175,000 for print and billboard ads. According to the group’s strategy memo, it plans to target Daschle with humorous ads subtly suggesting he is out of step with South Dakotans on issues like taxes.

Regier said his group has spoken with conservative Washington-based organizations such as the Club for Growth and the United Seniors Association about funding the initiative.

“As far as securing funding, we are still in the seminal stages,” Regier said.

Some South Dakota Republicans questioned whether the group has the ability to raise the money necessary to fund such an extensive campaign. A spokesman for the United Seniors said Friday that to his knowledge the group has never discussed the campaign with Regier or any officials at the RPC.

Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, did not return a call seeking comment. His organization, however, has shown both the willingness and the financial means necessary to support major advertising efforts against Daschle in the past.

Daschle campaign manager Steve Hildebrand questioned the legality of the Rushmore Policy Council running ads that allegedly advocate the defeat of a candidate.

“Direct involvement in a federal campaign by a 501(c)4 not only breaks the spirit of the law but likely crosses legal boundaries,” he said.

Regier defended the actions of his group, arguing that he is “not advocating the defeat or election of any candidate.”

“This is issue advocacy and [Democrats] can’t handle the heat from it,” he added. The group has allocated $50,000 in its budget for “defense/trial work,” however.

Hildebrand also sought to link the ad campaign to former Rep. John Thune (R), who has acknowledged he is considering a challenge to Daschle in 2004. In 2002, Thune came up 525 votes shy of defeating Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in the closest race of the cycle.

“In 2002 John Thune told his conservative friends in Washington to stay out of South Dakota with their negative ads,” said Hildebrand, referring to the proposed third-party advertising ban that was eventually scrapped when the two sides couldn’t agree on terms. “Now in 2003 his friends want to come back to South Dakota and run their negative attacks ads against Senator Daschle.”

Thune, who is not expected to make a decision on the race until this fall, refused to comment for this article, although one source familiar with the former Congressman argued that he is not close to Regier and hadn’t spoken to him in more than a year.

At the start of the year, Daschle was widely expected to seek his party’s presidential nomination but backed out at the last minute and announced he would run for a fourth Senate term. Despite the state’s Republican lean (President Bush won 60 percent of the vote statewide in 2000), Daschle has been re-elected easily, winning 62 percent in 1998.

National Republicans believe Daschle has severely damaged his re-election prospects with several comments, the latest coming on March 17 — just two days before war broke out in Iraq. Daschle said he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably that we’re now forced to war.”

The nascent campaign by the Rushmore Policy Council is expected to center on two characters named Del and Hurley.

In storyboards obtained by Roll Call, Del, a barber, and Hurley, his customer, discuss a number of topics ranging from the marriage penalty tax to their Web site (del-and-hurley.com). The Web site was not operational at press time.

The two men are described as “reminiscent of the ‘Bartles & Jaymes’ wine cooler guys from the 1980s” in the project’s mission statement, which also suggests the ads take on a “low-key ‘Hee-Haw’-like rural tone.”

The strategy memo notes that because of the divisiveness of the Johnson-Thune campaign, which saw both candidates as well as a number of outside interests spend millions in the state, viewers are “geared to react violently to any campaign that appears on its face to be ‘negative.’”

“We believe that in South Dakota today, ‘negative’ refers to tone, not content,” the memo states.

The proposed ad campaign is the latest in a three-year barrage from an array of conservative groups attacking Daschle for his stances as leader of his party in the Senate.

The Club for Growth has been at the forefront of this movement, having sponsored a series of ads late in the 2002 campaign in key states including South Dakota that featured bobblehead dolls with likenesses of Daschle and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

These efforts to sully Daschle led to the formation of a rival group called the “Daschle Democrats” comprised of former staffers and former Senators designed to counter the attacks.

As a result, the Rushmore Policy Council campaign “must be putatively based in South Dakota to avoid the dismissive outsider label routinely attached to such efforts in the past,” according to the memo.