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Leader Seeks $10M for ’04

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has established an extremely ambitious fundraising plan for his re-election effort, pledging to rake in “well over $10 million” in pursuit of his fourth term representing a state with a population of less than 800,000.

Daschle said he would report having slightly more than $2 million in the bank as of March 31. But that total is only a downpayment on a haul that he hopes will eventually more than double the amount raised by former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in his unsuccessful Senate bid last year.

While sources close to Thune say he is, at minimum, six months away from making a decision on the race, Daschle intends to send a signal to any potential opponent that the stakes for joining the race have increased dramatically from previous South Dakota contests.

“I am going to raise the same amount of money regardless of who runs. I am going to raise well over $10 million and we are right on track,” Daschle said in an interview with Roll Call. “We set a goal of $2 million [as of March 31] and we have exceeded it. We will exceed our goal for each reporting period. I don’t take it lightly. I don’t minimize the challenge regardless of who is running for my seat.”

Daschle has already shifted the focus of his political activity, devoting less time to raising money for other Senate Democrats and more to his own fortunes, as opposed to his previous almost singular focus on boosting the campaign coffers of the party’s incumbents and hopefuls.

But his own fundraising ambitions dwarf the spending on previous Senate races in his home state, something Democratic aides say is driven mainly by new campaign finance laws.

In the 2002 race between Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson (D), Thune raised $5.2 million and, with some leftover funds from previous House races, spent more than $5.9 million. Johnson raised and spent a little more than $6.8 million for the entire six-year cycle.

However, one Democratic strategist noted that the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, along with the state’s political party committees, helped funnel at least $6 million each into the race through TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts funded primarily with now-illegal soft money.

That made each campaign, by this Democratic estimate, worth roughly $13 million last year.

If Daschle can raise in the neighborhood of $11 million or $12 million, that would dramatically limit the amount of resources the DSCC would have to put into the race, giving Democrats more flexibility to spend money in other critical contests.

Even with new laws that double the amount individuals can give to candidates to $4,000 per election cycle, Daschle is attempting to essentially double his previous top fundraising haul, the $5.6 million raised for his 1998 campaign. Only 61 percent of those contributions came from individuals.

If Daschle can lock up so much campaign cash early, it could make Thune, backed strongly by the White House in his last bid, think twice about the race. A source close to Thune indicated that the former Member, who recently latched on to the law firm Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, won’t make a decision until “late in the fall or early next winter.”

That would leave less than a year to try to match Daschle in terms of fundraising, although the Minority Leader may have become such a lightning rod to conservatives that they would instantly rally around Thune in terms of dollars.

An internal GOP poll done by David Winston showed Daschle’s favorable/unfavorable ratings nationally hit a new low after comments delivered on March 17 in which he struck at President Bush’s failure to get U.N. support for the war in Iraq. The Winston poll had Daschle at 28 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable.

The Thune source said that the environment to run against Daschle had become “better than it’s ever been.”

“Daschle has been damaged back home,” the source added.

Daschle’s aides, however, refute this, saying that internal polls done by the Johnson campaign throughout 2002 showed that his job approval rating in South Dakota never dipped below 61 percent.

Steve Hildebrand, Daschle’s campaign manager who also ran Johnson’s bid in 2002, said Republican-leaning voters in South Dakota have dealt with Daschle’s partisan leadership for eight years now but continue to support him. “They love how Tom Daschle represents this state,” he said.

Unless current campaign laws are overturned by federal courts, the outside interest groups that so dominated the airwaves in South Dakota would have a much narrower window in which to pound away at Daschle, something they did almost endlessly in 2001 and 2002.

From Labor Day through Election Day, for instance, the outside groups would be allowed to run only ads that were financed through donations meeting federal “hard-dollar” limits if they were to invoke the name of Daschle or his opponent.

Still, Daschle said he expects the White House and its Congressional allies to use its bully-pulpit megaphone to go after him at every opportunity. And he has clearly sought to sharpen the Democratic message and tactics, attacking Bush when there is an opening and doing everything possible to thwart his domestic agenda on issues from judges to taxes.

While Daschle is thwarting Bush’s agenda inside the Senate chamber, Democrats running for the presidential nomination next year are attacking it in campaign stops around the country. It’s a race he was set to join in early January but backed away from at the last minute because, he said, he would have had to give up his leadership post immediately and abandon a re-election effort to the Senate.

“I have to say I have hardly ever given a second thought to my decision once I made it,” he said.

He deflected all comments regarding the 2004 contenders, saying every candidate has talked to him about the race but none have “overtly” sought his endorsement, which won’t be forthcoming.

“I don’t think I will be endorsing anyone,” he said.

With a still vast political operation and ever-increasing name recognition, Daschle, 55, could be a contender again in 2008 should Bush prevail next year. The so-called “six-year itch” could hit Republicans, and Daschle at that point could vault Democrats back into the majority — a scenario that would put him potentially front and center among some Democrats to run for president.

“That is so far down the road. I really don’t have any plans,” Daschle said, then adding that his preferred outcome of events would be a national victory for Democrats in 2004. “We are assuming, and I think we should assume, we are going to have a very competitive candidate in ’04 and it is going to be the first half of a Democratic administration.”

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