One week after Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) blistered the Bush administration over its unsuccessful diplomatic efforts in Iraq, national strategists on both sides of the aisle are debating the effect the comments will have on his likely re-election bid in 2004.
Speaking to a union legislative conference in Washington on March 17, Daschle said he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably that we’re now forced to war.”
The war in Iraq began two days later, and Daschle was blasted by a number of GOP leaders, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas).
Daschle’s remarks generated a handful of angry editorials and letters to the editor back home. The Yankton Press & Dakotan said that Daschle was “singing the wrong tune.”
The criticism is now being cultivated by Republican campaign operatives who see Daschle’s comments as crystallizing the apparent difficulty he faces in simultaneously serving as his party’s leading statesman —and critic of the president — while running for re-election in a state where Bush won 60 percent of the vote in 2000.
“This is a clear example of the fact that Senator Daschle’s position in Washington doesn’t always fit well with the voters back in South Dakota,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.
The leading potential Republican challenger to Daschle, former Rep. John Thune, who lost a 2002 challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D), chose not to comment on the hubbub. Ryan Nelson, a spokesman for Thune’s new 527 group — South Dakotans for Responsible Government — said that “many South Dakotans found [Daschle’s] comments disturbing.”
Nelson would not say whether Daschle’s statements will play a role in Thune’s ultimate decision.
“There are several factors that will be a part of that decision-making process,” said Nelson. “John wants somebody who is going to vote with South Dakota values and support our president.”
Steve Hildebrand, campaign manager for Daschle, maintained that the criticism of Bush’s policies was warranted and said that the controversy will not prompt Daschle to take a lower profile in the future.
“This isn’t about being the leading critic of President Bush,” Hildebrand said. “This is about whether the Bush policies are right for South Dakota and the nation. If not, Senator Daschle will continue to be critical.”
Hildebrand noted that while South Dakota gave Bush a 22-percent victor in 2000, Daschle won 62 percent in 1998, the last time he stood for re-election.
Daschle became a major factor during the 2002 Johnson-Thune race, as Republican groups ran scads of ads attacking him. Democrats familiar with that race note that in Johnson’s polling, Daschle’s favorability never dropped below 61 percent despite the attacks, which they believe diminishes Republican hopes of toppling him in 2004.
“This is nothing new,” said one Daschle strategist about Republican tactics. “The ‘demonize Daschle’ program continues full tilt.”
Although the South Dakota Senate election remains in its infant stages, already both sides are gearing up for what could become the marquee race of the cycle if Thune decides to run.
Daschle has “focused like a laser on South Dakota” since he made the decision to run for re-election, noted one Democratic Senate aide.
During a three-day trip to his home state for the Presidents Day holiday last month, Daschle stopped in 12 communities as part of an “economic listening tour,” according to the aide. He is expected to make a similar trip this weekend.
Daschle has also surrounded himself with a veritable who’s who of campaign talent, including Hildebrand, who managed then Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 Iowa caucus victory; Anita Dunn, a media consultant heavily involved in the 2000 presidential campaign of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.); and fundraiser Brian Hardwick, a former Democratic National Committee finance chairman.
“These are people who know South Dakota, have national experience and have dealt with a high-profile race,” the aide said.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been actively recruiting Thune and believe that Daschle’s role as a spokesman for his party could doom his re-election chances.
“You can’t lead the Democratic Party from a state like South Dakota,” said one Congressional aide with ties to the state, who compared Daschle’s position to that of former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.).
McGovern won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination largely on his stance against the Vietnam War, but was crushed by Richard Nixon in the general election.
Daschle was widely assumed to be a candidate for president before taking himself out of contention in January. At that time, he announced he would run for a fourth term.
McGovern won his 1974 re-election bid with 53 percent — buoyed in no small part by the Watergate backlash against the GOP — but was soundly defeated by then-Rep. Jim Abdnor (R) six years later in a horrible year nationally for Democrats.
As evidence of the possible tenuousness of Daschle’s position, one national Republican source pointed to a recent poll conducted after Daschle’s comments by John McLaughlin and Associates. It showed Thune with a narrow lead — within the poll’s margin of error — over Daschle. Daschle had a 38 percent unfavorable rating in the survey.
Thune has been noncommittal about the race, though he has been far from low profile. In addition to serving as chairman of the new 527, Thune has also formed The Thune Group, which provides consulting advice on agricultural and health care issues and has a business relationship with the D.C. law firm Arent Fox.
Republican recruitment efforts may have less saliency this cycle to Thune, who was persuaded from a near sure-thing gubernatorial race in order to take on Johnson. Thune lost that race by 528 votes — the narrowest margin of any of the 34 Senate races on the docket — despite numerous visits by Bush and other luminaries.
Another mitigating factor in any Thune decision is the still-potent political power of Daschle in his home state. Since first being elected to an open House seat in 1978, Daschle has regularly won re-election, ascending to the Senate in 1986 by knocking off Abdnor. He has also emerged as one of the top fundraisers in the party; while largely occupied with raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last cycle, Daschle still managed to bring in $540,000 for his own campaign account over the last six months of 2002, and ended the year with $1.5 million in the bank.
And, according to Hildebrand, Daschle is totally dedicated to the 2004 race, a not insignificant component considering how close he came to launching a presidential bid earlier this year.
“He knows that there are too many issues left undone to stop fighting for the people of South Dakota and our country,” said Hildebrand. “His desire is to continue to serve in the United States Senate.”