Monday, August 02, 2004

NYT Mag looks at the South Dakota Senate race

"Hunting Mr. Democrat" from this week's New York Times Magazine:
In 1986, when Daschle was in the House and running for the Senate, Bill Janklow, a Republican populist just finishing two terms as governor, challenged Abdnor in a primary to decide who would face down Daschle. The irascible, domineering, occasionally gun-toting Janklow is among the most colorful politicians South Dakota has ever had. He might have beat Daschle but never got the chance; Abdnor, the conservative favorite, won the primary, then lost the general election. Daschle has been senator ever since.

In 1996, Thune ran an upstart campaign for the House, defeating Janklow's lieutenant governor in the primary and a former Daschle associate in the general election; he promptly gained a leadership spot in his freshman class. With term limits in fashion, he vowed to quit after six years -- a promise that conveniently put him in line to succeed Janklow in 2002. Thune's rise hardened the Abdnor-Janklow rift. ''For the first time in a long time,'' Thune said, ''Bill had to share the stage with somebody, and there were a lot of people in his camp who found that not to their liking.''

The feud was made more intense by the nature of South Dakota politics. With fewer than 800,000 people, South Dakota has only four high-profile positions -- governor, one House member and the two Senate seats -- and the state's most ambitious men fight hard to gain power and to keep it. So in 2002, instead of Thune replacing Janklow as governor, it was Janklow who replaced Thune, winning the House seat Thune had vacated. By this time, though, Janklow and Daschle had become good friends and tacit allies. In the 1990's, when Daschle stood accused of misusing his influence in the investigation of a plane crash, Janklow came to his defense. Last year, Daschle stuck his neck out for Janklow when the governor-turned-congressman stood trial for manslaughter after killing a motorcyclist in a traffic accident. ''I think he's a very truthful person,'' Daschle told the jury. Janklow was convicted nonetheless and sent to prison.

Daschle's mutual survival pact with Janklow has worked to his benefit. As Geisler said, ''It's the Republicans that keep electing Daschle.'' This is something Thune's Washington friends fail to grasp. ''I don't think the national Republicans have ever had a very good understanding of South Dakota,'' Thune said. ''They look at the voter registration numbers, and this looks like a Republican stronghold, and on the presidential level they are right. But if you drill down a little deeper, and look at the success Democrats have had out here, it is clearly a state that is up for grabs.''

Now, with Janklow out of the way, Thune is trying to consolidate the Republican Party to reclaim Jim Abdnor's old seat. But Janklow's people don't think much of Thune; they are suspicious of his genial ways and his West River connections to the religious right. ''Quite honestly,'' said one Janklow associate, ''a number of people within the Republican Party think Thune's a lightweight.''

"Lightweight'' is not an expression anyone would use to describe Tom Daschle.

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