Special an Early Test of S.D. Race

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:41pm

The upcoming special election in South Dakota will serve not only as a flashpoint in the fight for control of the House but also as an early litmus test of the organizational strength of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R).

Both Daschle and Thune will appear on the primary ballot June 1, the same day 2002 House nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) and state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) will face off to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned his seat Jan. 20.

Thune is being challenged by Bert Tollefson; Daschle was expected to face newspaper publisher Tim Giago, but Giago decided Monday he would instead run as an Independent in the general election (see story, p. 20).

Both Daschle and Thune will use the opportunity to test get-out-the-vote operations for November while also providing trickle-down aid to their respective parties’ candidates in the special.

Thune campaign manager Dick Wadhams said that confluence of races “gives both parties and both Senate campaigns the opportunity to fine-tune their turnout efforts.

“Larry will be the beneficiary of a very strong victory program through the state party that will also serve as our turnout effort for the campaign this fall,” Wadhams added.

Daschle’s campaign team was more taciturn.

“We are focused on talking to voters,” said campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. “We are not focused on campaign tactics.”

One important difference worth noting is that while Thune is part of a coordinated effort funded by the state party that includes the House special election and other state legislative races, Daschle has his own turnout organization funded out of his Senate campaign.

Anita Dunn, a Democratic media consultant with strong ties to the Daschle operation, was slightly more forthcoming than Hildebrand on the turnout issue.

The situation “offers both sides an opportunity to test” their turnout models, she said.

“In many ways the model the Daschle campaign is using has been tested once already successfully,” Dunn added, referring to Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) victory over Thune last cycle.

That race, which saw Johnson beat Thune by just 524 votes, was largely credited to the superiority of the Johnson ground operation, especially in the Native American communities throughout the state.

Much of that operation has been retained in the Daschle campaign including Hildebrand, who also managed the Johnson effort.

“We have been operational for a year,” said Hildebrand, noting that the only organizational changes the campaign is making now involve adding staff and opening offices throughout the state.

“Unlike Thune, we have had a longer time to build a field operation,” Dunn added.

Thune, who entered the race formally in early January, has admitted that his campaign left votes on the table in the last election, a problem he believes he can correct this time around.

His campaign team of Wadhams, pollster Glen Bolger and media consultant Scott Howell is considered one of the strongest in the country.

While the impact of the Senate turnout effort on the House race remains difficult to predict, operatives on both sides believe it will be a factor.

Though Thune and Daschle are banned from directly coordinating their efforts with Diedrich and Herseth, the quality of their campaigns and the refinement of their turnout operations, coupled with their ability to spend monies designated as primary funds, will benefit the House candidates.

One Democratic House leadership aide cited the South Dakota Democratic party voter file as an example of this impact.

The source noted that because of the work of the Johnson campaign in 2002, the voter file is top-notch, which allows Herseth to more effectively target her message and turnout plans.

The campaigns of Herseth and Diedrich were largely non-committal about the effect of the Senate primary on their race.

“We expect Senator Daschle and his organization to be as helpful as they can be,” said Herseth spokesman Russ Levsen.

“To the degree voters are turned out for a Democratic Senate primary that will be helpful to our campaign,” he acknowledged.

While noting that Diedrich and Thune are friends, Diedrich spokeswoman Danielle Holland said that “on the top of everyone’s radar is getting Larry elected.”

“For a lot of folks, November is a ways away,” she added.

Wadhams and Hildebrand were even more reluctant to link the outcome of the House special election in any way with the Senate contest.

“Whatever is going to happen in the House race is going to happen and then we will get to the Senate race,” Wadhams asserted.

Hildebrand said that given South Dakota voters’ willingness to give a Republican president 60 percent of the vote while sending two Democratic Senators to Washington, the winner of the House race is immaterial.

“The Senate race will clearly come down not to who is sitting in the Congressional seat but what’s best for South Dakota,” he said.

One Democratic operative took the opposite stance, however.

“The [House] race is extremely important to Tom Daschle,” said the operative. “People will be looking at it as a measure of how he might do in the fall.”