Daschle Wants Wingtips on the Ground in S.D.

Posted August 6, 2004 at 6:10pm

When Texas businessman Cappy McGarr stood in front of a crowded room of Democratic donors attending the party’s national convention last month, his pitch for helping the re-election campaign of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sounded strikingly like the old Warren Zevon song: “Send lawyers, guns and money.”

All except for the guns, anyway.

In addition to the standard pitch for donations, McGarr, the chairman of Daschle’s leadership political action committee, said the campaign would need 200 attorneys on the ground on Election Day to ensure that there are no voting irregularities in the tight race between Daschle and former Rep. John Thune (R).

“We need to stop voter intimidation in Indian precincts,” McGarr said.

Deputy Daschle campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer said that the “goal is to ensure that we have enough attorneys, both in-state and out-of-state, to protect voting rights.”

Pfeiffer added that the campaign has put special emphasis on recruiting lawyers who already practice in the state, and lawyers with American Indian heritage.

Not to be outdone, Thune’s campaign is involved in a similar effort.

“There have been a lot of lawyers from around the country that have indicated they would like to be a part of it,” said Thune campaign manager Dick Wadhams.

The intense legal scrutiny expected in South Dakota comes after allegations of voter intimidation and ballot fraud in the 2002 race between Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and Thune.

Johnson won that race by 524 votes, thanks in large part to his huge margins in American Indian precincts.

In the largest Indian county, Shannon, Johnson took 2,856 votes to Thune’s 248. He won the six most heavily Indian counties with 78 percent overall.

A number of Republicans urged Thune to contest the election, noting that turnout among American Indian voters in those six counties rose from 7,500 in 2000 to 11,275 in 2002.

The former Congressman declined to do so, arguing that the state’s voters had already been subjected to a long and brutal campaign.

Thune also likely had an eye on this race against Daschle and was not interested in sullying his image with a protracted ballot fight.

While the 2002 Senate campaign in South Dakota was perhaps the most high-profile contest of that cycle, the clash between Daschle and Thune has taken on an even higher profile nationally because of Daschle’s status as Senate Democratic leader.

“There was a very substantial [legal] effort on Democrats’ behalf in 2002, but this will be larger,” Pfeiffer predicted.

And both sides will have ample resources.

Daschle had raised $13 million through June 30; Thune, who started fundraising in late January, raised more than $6 million by that time.

On the legal front, both camps are already trying to stake out the moral high ground on voting rights.

In addition to the Democratic and Republican lawyers who will descend on the state come November, Wadhams urged journalists “from across South Dakota and the nation” to come to the state on Election Day to monitor the process.

“In those areas where there has been controversies in the past, why don’t we have members of the media show up and watch the process,” Wadhams said.

Wadhams added that the presence of non-partisan observers would further “shine a light” on any potential voting irregularities.

The Daschle camp, for its part, recently unveiled a voting-rights project that aims to “inform voters of their rights and ensure no voter is the subject of harassment or intimidation at the polls,” according to a news release.

Pfeiffer said the new initiative was in response to numerous complaints, especially among American Indians, that Republican poll workers sought to keep them from casting a vote.

“Republicans have done their math,” said Pfeiffer. “They know they have to reduce the vote in Indian Country to win the election.”

Pfeiffer added that while Republicans had a relatively “haphazard” effort in the June 1 special election to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), “they managed to get attorneys on the Indian reservations.”

In that race, Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D) defeated state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) thanks to her margin in Shannon and Todd counties.

She carried Shannon with 94 percent of the vote, or a margin of 1,651 votes. And she won Todd by 84 percent, with a 1,333-vote margin.

Combined, the two Indian counties put Herseth 2,984 votes ahead — three votes more than her ultimate margin statewide of 2,981.

Thune, unlike some Republican candidates in South Dakota, has made a concerted effort to reach out to American Indian voters in this election. He’s made regular visits to reservations in the hope of cutting into Daschle’s margins there.

“Both campaigns ought to be working toward the same goals on the reservation and elsewhere,” said Wadhams. “Both campaigns ought to be committed to making sure the process is open, and [that] no voter is intimidated from voting nor any illegitimate voter be allowed to vote.”

Thune’s efforts have been complicated in recent weeks by a public falling-out with prominent Indian-rights activist Russell Means, who had initially endorsed Thune.

Thune severed ties with Means after deciding that the latter’s proposal to court the Indian vote was not feasible.

Many American Indian voters are also unhappy about a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2003 that requires voters show a photo ID to be allowed to cast a ballot. Some suspect the Legislature approved the photo ID law specifically in response to Thune’s narrow 2002 defeat.

A number of tribal leaders have come out in opposition to the measure, which they say directly targets American Indians — a charge the bill’s sponsors deny.