Parties Mull Special’s Lessons for Daschle, Thune

Posted June 4, 2004 at 5:56pm

Even before the final votes were tallied in South Dakota’s House special election last Tuesday, partisans on both sides were spinning the impact of the result on the state’s Senate race.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) campaign quickly released a detailed memo touting the “good news” from Democrat Stephanie Herseth’s narrow 51percent to 49 percent victory over state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R).

Among the pluses Daschle cited were Diedrich’s seeming inability to make inroads among American Indians and the first opportunity since 1996 for Daschle to work with a Democratic House member from South Dakota.

Dick Wadhams, campaign manager for former Rep. John Thune (R), called Daschle’s move to embrace Herseth “ironic and rather laughable.”

Wadhams pointed out that Daschle’s campaign manager asked that his contribution to Herseth be returned and that the Democratic Senate leader was a virtual non-entity on the campaign trail during the special election.

“As part of her diving to the right on issues like gay marriage and tax cuts, her strategy to not come across as a liberal was to keep distance between herself and Tom Daschle” and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Wadhams added.

The Daschle campaign retorted that the Senator raised and contributed nearly $100,000 to Herseth and split the cost of a recorded phone call with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to benefit her. He also campaigned with Herseth in the campaign’s last two weekends. Thune did not play a major role on Diedrich’s behalf, they argued.

The instant analysis offered by both sides reveals the enormous effort being expended to secure even the slightest edge in what is shaping up to be one of the closest-fought Senate races in the country.

Thune, who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002 by just 524 votes, will be Daschle’s strongest opponent since 1986 — when Daschle, then a House member, unseated Sen. James Abdnor (R), 52 percent to 48 percent.

National Republicans cite Daschle as the primary reason for the alleged obstructionism in the Senate, which they believe has stalled the confirmation of judges as well as passage of a comprehensive energy bill.

Dirk Van Dongen — chief lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and the head of efforts on K Street to defeat Daschle — convened a meeting of “Team Thune” last Wednesday to plan future fundraising events to benefit the former Congressman.

Last month, the group raised $150,000 for Thune at an event that featured White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.

Knowing that defeating Daschle ranks at the top of Republicans’ wish lists in 2004, the Minority Leader has operated a fully ramped-up campaign for the better part of the past year. That effort includes a yearlong ad campaign that touts his accomplishments for the state.

Recent polling about the effectiveness of those ads, however, has provided mixed results. In one poll conducted for the Daschle campaign and another done by the independent research firm Zogby International, the Democratic Senator led Thune by 13 points.

But a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Media Research Inc. showed the race much tighter, with Daschle leading Thune only 49 percent to 47 percent.

Most observers on both sides acknowledge that Daschle has the edge, with the difference being the size of that advantage. Republicans say it’s in the low single digits, while Democrats see an 8- to 10-point margin.

A look at the raw numbers coming out of the June 1 special election offered some good news for both camps.

While Diedrich received 38,000 fewer votes statewide than Thune did in 2002 — as would be expected in a June special election — he still outperformed Thune in 39 of the state’s 67 counties, according to a Roll Call analysis (see map). This suggests that Thune might be able to increase his vote totals this fall as compared to 2002.

However, Democrats can take some comfort in the fact that many of the counties where Diedrich outperformed Thune have small populations. The state’s two biggest counties — Minnehaha and Pennington — offer Thune little room for growth.

Democrats are also bolstered by Herseth’s strong showing on Indian reservations. While American Indians represent a traditional stronghold for Democrats, Thune has spent significant effort courting Indian voters in 2004.

“The GOP has spent the last year talking about how they are going after the Native American vote,” said Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer. “That effort fell totally flat.”

In Shannon County, which includes the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Diedrich won just 6 percent of the vote. Thune took 8 percent there in 2000.

American Indians make up 9 percent of South Dakota’s population but were widely credited with delivering a victory to Johnson last cycle, due to high levels of turnout.

Wadhams said the special-election results do not suggest any reason for pessimism in the Thune camp.

“This shows the work we are doing on the reservations is going to result in tangible results in November,” said Wadhams. “John worked quite closely with the tribes when he was a [House] Member.”

Thune held the state’s at-large House seat from 1996 to 2002.

Another point of contention between Daschle and Thune is whether South Dakota voters who gave President George W. Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2000 will feel comfortable sending an all-Democratic delegation to Washington in the fall. The last time South Dakota Democrats had total control of the delegation was 1937.

“By putting all their eggs in one partisan basket, South Dakota voters are taking a big risk,” said Thune pollster Glen Bolger.

Bolger argued that because Daschle is the “most polarizing figure with the highest unfavorable [ratings]” of the three Democrats, he runs the highest probability of feeling any anti-Democratic backlash from voters.

Pfeiffer dismissed any negative impact from the all-Democratic delegation, noting that 64 percent of those tested by Mason-Dixon said that factor would not impact how they would vote. Ten percent said they would be more likely to support Daschle, while 25 percent said they would be less likely.

“Everyone knows that the three Democrats argument is not going to work in this state,” Pfeiffer said. “If it works, it would have worked for Larry Diedrich this time around.”

Pfeiffer added that in neighboring North Dakota, voters have sent three Democrats to Congress since 1986 despite giving Bush 61 percent in 2000.

“The Republican Party in North Dakota has tried this tactic for a number of years with absolutely no success,” Pfeiffer said.