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Senators Give Daschle Lift

After eight years in leadership focusing on electing Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is now on the receiving end of a growing effort by his colleagues to shore up his standing both in the chamber and at home.

Worried about their leader’s spirits after enduring 18 months of pounding from conservatives, Senate Democrats semi-spontaneously decided to let Daschle know how much they appreciate his work on their behalf. As the chamber was debating its stimulus plan May 15, almost the entire Democratic Caucus, led by Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), marched into a room off the Senate floor and surprised Daschle with a mass “thank you” from a group that has, by its own admission, largely taken his leadership for granted.

“It was an effort to really express our gratitude to him and to show him how important he really is to progressive governance,” said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), whose razor-thin re-election last fall benefited from Daschle’s tireless campaigning.

The boost came as Daschle begins in earnest what could be his toughest campaign since he first won a Senate seat in 1986.

“We wanted to say some things personally, but we’re going to be doing things publicly,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), who, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has made Daschle’s race a top priority.

While whispers persist among Democrats and Republicans about whether he will actually stand for re-election (his party is already facing the daunting prospect of defending as many as five open seats), Democrats point to his activities as the only sure measure of his intentions — and all signs point to Daschle doing what needs to be done.

After taking a month or so off from the fundraising trail because of the war in Iraq, Daschle is now compressing as many events as he can to make sure his June 30 filing doesn’t fall off pace for his stated goal of collecting roughly $11 million for the race. One adviser said he’s averaging four fundraising events a week for his own bid.

Daschle still held his major annual D.C. event for his leadership political action committee, DASHPAC, last Tuesday night, raising roughly $350,000. That was followed the next night with an event for his re-election committee, A Lot of People Supporting Tom Daschle, at the home of Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta.

And this week Daschle returns home to South Dakota, where he’ll attend Memorial Day services and do events honoring the local ethanol industry, including pumping ethanol for a day at a Sioux Falls gas station. The latter part of the week he’ll do a fundraising trek through Los Angeles and San Francisco to benefit both his bid and the DSCC.

Daschle appears increasingly likely to take to the air with political ads sometime this summer for an election that remains more than 17 months away. “You can expect that it will be as early as South Dakotans have ever seen [political ads] if these attacks from the right continue,” said Steve Hildebrand, Daschle’s campaign manager.

“I think Tom is committed to running,” Johnson said, noting the work he’s putting in now and the years he has spent pushing the Democratic agenda. “He’s not going to walk away from that.”

Republicans contend that Daschle’s activity is a sign of weakness, and continue to point to his March 17 comments about President Bush’s “failed” diplomacy before the Iraq war as the source of what they say are hemorrhaging poll numbers.

“It shows they’re worried,” Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of efforts to rally around the leader.

There haven’t been any recent public polls pitting Daschle against his most potentially threatening challenger, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), although an NRSC poll after the Iraq comments put Thune narrowly ahead of Daschle but within the margin of error.

Nationally, the conservative attacks on Daschle have made a huge dent in his image. A poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC released Friday showed Daschle’s national approval rating at just 17 percent, with almost a third of the nation viewing him negatively.

Back home, Daschle’s campaign team has made a sharp pivot, seizing the offensive against their would-be opponent, Thune, who lost by only a few hundred votes to Johnson and has said a decision on running against Daschle in 2004 remains months away. When South Dakota conservatives tried to set up a $1 million nonprofit devoted to attacking Daschle, his campaign and the DSCC spent an entire week pillorying the effort and accusing it of conducting an unethical shadow campaign on behalf of Thune.

The nonprofit backed off its campaign before it even got started. Last week the Daschle campaign pounced on reports in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that Thune’s campaign committee, John Thune for South Dakota, remains active — spending $22,000 in the first quarter — at the same time he has set up a soft-money nonprofit group, South Dakotans for Responsible Government, employing two of his former campaign aides.

“He can raise soft money, he can raise hard money, but he can’t raise both,” Hildebrand said, promising to closely monitor Thune’s future activities. “We will watch John Thune like a hawk to make sure he’s abiding by federal election laws.”

Ryan Nelson, political director of Thune’s 2002 race and current executive director of the nonprofit, said the money was legally spent for “winding down” costs associated with the campaign.

At least $4,300 of the spending for John Thune for South Dakota in the first quarter appears to be new expenses on a campaign credit card that were related to travel and meals and were paid in February and March, ranging from $31.45 for Domino’s Pizza to $1,131 at the Holiday Inn in Rapid City, S.D.

Now, however, former aides say Thune is focused entirely on his nonprofit, a so-called 527 for the section of the tax code under which it files. An April 2 fundraising letter from Thune included a hand-written “P.S.” telling readers his organization is “ready to go to work, challenging the opposition’s positions and promoting ours. … Your gift will help us make a difference.”

But other than one full-time staffer on the 527, Thune has no built-in organization to respond to the newly aggressive Daschle team. Former campaign aides say Thune still has no official timetable for making up his mind, with some indicating a late fall or early winter decision.

Hildebrand, a veteran of South Dakota and national campaigns, is assembling what Democrats are calling a top team, and one that was preparing to work for a Daschle presidential campaign. He already has a team of fundraisers and researchers, and by next month he’ll have hired 20 field directors.

The NRSC’s Allen said Thune is without question the best candidate they can advance, arguing that his universal name ID gave him more time than any other South Dakota Republican to decide whether to take on Daschle. But, clearly, Allen would prefer if Thune followed the model of Reps. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who are already running Senate bids.

“I would prefer that all of our respective challengers be out there running,” Allen said. “The sooner he makes the decision, the better.”

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