PLAINS:Daschle Loss Elates GOP, Depresses Democrats

Posted November 3, 2004 at 3:45pm

With the presidential election outcome all but certain in the Plains states prior to Election Day — as of press time, Iowa was the only state yet to be called definitively for Bush — the South Dakota Senate race took center stage in the region.

There, a too-close-to-call contest pitting Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) against ex-Rep. John Thune (R) went down to the wire. Although the state of just 761,000 people was flooded with campaign ads, polls had the two men essentially tied heading into Election Day. But in the end, Daschle’s much-lauded ground operation was no match for the overwhelmingly Republican orientation of the state, which Bush swept by a margin of more than 20 points.

This time Thune — who two years ago narrowly lost a Senate bid against Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by just 524 votes — won a substantially larger victory over the Senate Minority Leader with more than 4,500 votes.

Daschle becomes the first Senate leader to be defeated since Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater upset Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland (D) 52 years ago.

Combined, Daschle and Thune raised more than $30 million for the race, with millions more poured into advertising by outside groups largely opposed to Daschle. In the final week of the election, despite Daschle’s pledge to forgo third-party assistance, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began airing ads on his behalf.

During the campaign, Thune emphasized what he saw as Daschle’s weakness on “South Dakota values,” with Daschle arguing that his Senate leadership post put him in the best position to channel funds and projects to the Mount Rushmore State. But in an election that saw morality emerge as a top priority of South Dakota voters, Thune’s appeal to Christian conservatives appears to have contributed to his win in this heavily GOP-targeted Senate seat.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota’s at-large House seat, incumbent Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth, who had said she would vote for Bush should a split electoral vote throw the presidential election to the House, comfortably beat her Republican opponent, state Sen. Larry Diedrich, siphoning off roughly a quarter of the GOP vote to win, 53 percent to 46 percent. A third-party candidate, Libertarian Terry Begay, netted nearly 3,000 votes. In June, the 33-year-old Herseth narrowly bested Diedrich in a special election, edging the state lawmaker by just 2 points. She filled the remaining term of ex-Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter.

Congressional races in North Dakota were not nearly as eventful. Despite overwhelming margins favoring Bush and an initiative banning gay marriage on the ballot, voters appeared happy to split their ticket, with the two Democratic incumbents, Sen. Byron Dorgan and at-large Rep. Earl Pomeroy, coasting to easy victory.

In Kansas, it was also a clean sweep for incumbents. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) cakewalked to victory over his nearly anonymous Democratic opponent, railroad worker Robert Conroy. Four-term Rep. Jim Ryun (R), a former track star, easily won re-election, despite a respectable challenge from businesswoman Nancy Boyda.

The only truly competitive House seat in the state, the Kansas City-area 3rd district, was comfortably held by Blue Dog Democrat Dennis Moore, whose successful co-opting of the ideological middle ground has allowed him to carve out a niche as the lone Democrat in the Jayhawk State’s Congressional delegation. Despite an aggressive challenge by Republican Kris Kobach, a former city councilman who emphasized his socially conservative credentials, three-term Rep. Moore won with 55 percent of the vote — building on the 50 percent he took in his two previous re-election bids.

Although predictions earlier in the campaign indicated a potentially close race in Nebraska’s Republican 1st district, former Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry — helped by a steady stream of high-profile Republicans who campaigned on his behalf — won a convincing victory over Democrat state Sen. Matt Connealy. Republican Rep. Lee Terry trounced state Sen. Nancy Thompson (D) in the Omaha-area 2nd district.

Next door in Missouri, where Bush bested his 2000 margin of victory, three-term Sen. Kit Bond (R) was re-elected by a double-digit margin against state Treasurer Nancy Farmer, despite having “re-elect” numbers that hovered around 50 percent for much of the race.

Meanwhile, in the St. Louis-area 3rd district, state Rep. Russ Carnahan, son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D), won the seat left open by the retirement of former Democratic presidential hopeful and Rep. Richard Gephardt. In other notable House races, Republican Rep. Sam Graves handily won re-election to the Republican-leaning 6th district. And ex-Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver took the Democratic-majority open 5th district seat — vacated by retiring Rep. Karen McCarthy (D) — despite a surprisingly strong race by wealthy businesswoman Jeanne Patterson (R).

In Iowa, four-term Senator and Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R) easily trumped former state Rep. Art Small, the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb. Meanwhile, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) beat back a repeat challenge from Republican hopeful, attorney Stan Thompson in the 3rd Congressional district.