Daschle Increasingly Confident of Own Re-election

Posted December 5, 2003 at 6:21pm

Almost 25 years into his Congressional career, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) compares his preparation for the upcoming re-election battle to a veteran athlete gearing up for one last big fight to prove his worth.

Admitting for the first time that he didn’t fully commit to running again until late in the summer, Daschle said he’s fully recharged his political batteries and is looking forward to what could be his toughest battle since he first won a House seat in 1978.

“I am actually looking forward to it, I’m excited about a new race. There’s a certain challenge that I think those of us in politics enjoy from time to time and this is one of those for me,” Daschle said last week in an interview with Roll Call. “You know, I’m sure it’s similar to somebody in sports who likes a good, competitive race now and then. You know, if that happens, we’re up for it, we’re excited about it and we’re going to have fun doing it.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Without mentioning former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) by name, Daschle’s increasing confidence and engagement in his re-election fight will serve almost as an open dare to Thune, who has said an announcement will come early in the new year.

South Dakota politics continues to be a muddied mess, with Rep. Bill Janklow’s (R-S.D.) legal situation overshadowing the only statewide races on the ballot next year — his House seat and Daschle’s Senate seat.

If Janklow is forced to resign, Thune may opt to run for his old House seat but top GOP Senate strategists are still pushing him to challenge Daschle, who has emerged as President Bush’s largest Congressional nemesis in the past three years.

But Daschle said his campaign organization is ready to go up against any opponent, and he will continue to be as active as he’s already been — to the tune of $1.2 million last quarter, more money spent than any Senate incumbent, in a state with fewer than 350,000 voters.

“We’re going to win this race and the reason we are is because we will be the best organized, the best funded, and the most engaged that I have ever been for an entire reelection cycle,” Daschle said. “We started much earlier than I have ever started before, we’ve committed resources and organization earlier than we have ever committed before.”

But reaching that decision was not as easy as it was presented to be. Daschle announced in early January that he would not seek the presidency, scuttling a campaign that was already interviewing staff and selecting its imagery for the announcement. At the time he also announced he would run for re-election, a decision that even his closest advisers privately admitted was more surprising to them than his decision to pull out of the presidential bid.

Rumors persisted throughout the spring and well into the summer that Daschle might not run, despite his and his staff’s statements to the contrary.

Daschle acknowledged last week that he had left open the idea of retiring rather than running again, and that the final go/no-go decision wasn’t made until “last summer,” in July or August when his campaign kicked into high gear.

“I was pretty certain almost immediately that I was going to run for re-election when I announced my decision not to run for the presidency,” he said. “But I left open the possibility that I would see how things went over the course of the first few months of the new session. And the more the session unfolded, the more excited I got and the more committed I was and then made the final decision when we decided to commit as we did to the campaign organization that we already had in place.”

At one point late in the spring, Daschle’s colleagues grew very concerned about his public and private demeanor. Few acknowledged it at the time, but there was an underlying fear among Senate Democrats that Daschle would not run for re-election.

Spurred by Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and veteran Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), almost the entire Democratic Caucus rushed off the Senate floor during a late-night voting session and into Daschle’s corner office on the second floor of the Senate. In addition to thanking him for nine years as leader and giving some general encouragement, the Caucus presented Daschle with a crystal eagle.

The plaque on which the eagle sits has an engraving: “To our Leader: With deep appreciation from the United States Senate Democratic Caucus, May 15, 2003.”

The sentimental value of the gift is very high to Daschle, who has it sitting on his desk a few feet from his computer.

“It really meant a lot,” he said. “Well, it’s hard to quantify things like that.”

With a goal of raising well in excess of $10 million — he’d raised $5.3 million for the cycle as of Sept. 30 — Daschle has become singularly focused on raising money for his own campaign.

From July 1 through Oct. 31, he raised less than $28,000 for his leadership political action committee, which he uses to support other candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission reports. (He raised more than $205,000 for his leadership PAC in the same four-month period last year.)

Daschle declined to say definitively that this was his last re-election campaign, and he’s demonstrated an ability for surprise decisions. But he left the image that this campaign was probably it, one last big fight to celebrate his quarter-century mark in elective politics.

He called the choices to opt out of the presidential bid and run for re-election his two “biggest decisions I’ve made in at least the time I’ve been in the Senate.”

“And both of those decisions I think in my heart, and in every sense about me, feels right,” he said. “I have no regrets about not running and have great excitement and enthusiasm about the decision to run one more time.”