Independent Could Sway Dakota Senate Race

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:16pm

American Indian newspaper publisher Tim Giago’s decision to forego a primary challenge to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in favor of an independent general election bid this fall is likely to force both parties to recalculate their winning formulas in South Dakota.

In the immediate aftermath of Giago’s announcement this week, the campaigns of both Daschle and former Rep. John Thune (R) sought to spin the development in their favor, although an initial analysis would seem to indicate Daschle’s campaign will be more heavily impacted.

“Giago is going to do nothing but divert attention from Tom Daschle,” said Thune campaign manager Dick Wadhams.

Not so, said Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer.

“When Mr. Giago announced he was going to run in the primary, Senator Daschle said he thought it was a good thing for the state because it would highlight issues important to Native Americans,” Pfeiffer said. “He still believes that.”

As for Giago, he is unconcerned about whether his independent run will hurt Democrats or Republicans more.

“To the Indian people out here it doesn’t matter whether we have a Democrat, a Republican or a Whig,” said Giago. “They all hide under the rug when it comes to Indian issues.”

Giago, who is the editor of the Lakota Journal, said he decided to make the contest to highlight the lack of compensation for the “theft of the Black Hills” from the nine tribes of the Sioux.

“When I questioned Tom Daschle about his feelings on the Black Hills he says it is already settled,” said Giago. “He refuses to acknowledge there is a question from the Indian people in this state about the Black Hills.”

Giago added that of the 10 poorest counties in America, three are on South Dakota Indian reservations.

“Why hasn’t [Daschle] done something to bring some economic development to the reservations?” Giago asked.

Pfeiffer responded that Daschle has “very deep support in the Native American community.”

Although Giago is given little chance of winning in November, because of the expected closeness of the race between Daschle and Thune and the size of the Indian vote in the state, his candidacy is being taken much more seriously than longshot candidacies in other Senate races.

In the 2002 contest between Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Thune, Johnson won by 524 votes thanks in large part to the presence of a conservative Libertarian candidate on the ballot and an increased voter turnout on the state’s nine Indian reservations.

Libertarian Kurt Evans dropped out of the race days before the November 2002 election, saying he was worried that he could hand the election to Johnson. His name remained on the ballot, however and he received 3,070 votes — the vast majority of which would likely have gone to Thune.

The American Indian turnout story was even more compelling.

Johnson won 78 percent of the vote in the six counties with significant reservation populations; turnout in these areas was up 33 percent from the 2000 elections. American Indians comprise 8 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2000 census.

Questions swirled about the legality of voter registration practices on the reservations, and then state Attorney General Mark Barnett (R) launched an investigation in October 2002.

Democrats dismissed it as a partisan witch hunt, and while some Republicans urged Thune to call for a recount focused on the reservations following his narrow loss, he refused to do so.

In this campaign, Thune has made much more of a concerted outreach effort, visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the first week of his candidacy and enlisting the aid of Indian activist Russell Means.

Wadhams also argues that Johnson had a strong connection with the Indian community — a link, he said, that Daschle lacks.

“Folks don’t look at Daschle the way they look at Johnson,” Wadhams said.

Pfeiffer said that Indian voters would not be fooled by Thune’s newfound dedication to their issues.

“This back of the envelope political analysis from the Thune campaign represents a lack of understanding of the South Dakota Native American vote,” Pfeiffer said.

He argued that Thune did not advance any issues of importance to the Indian community in South Dakota during his six years in the House.

Daschle has a political presence on all nine reservations in the state and has visited each one at least once since the summer, Pfeiffer added.