Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) officially took over the seat of former Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in January.
But apparently no one told the two men’s surrogates that the campaign ended half a year ago. They continue to spar as if another election is just around the corner.
When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pounced on Thune within minutes of the release of the Pentagon’s base realignment and closure list, which included a recommendation to shutter South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base, Thune’s camp believed the attack had Daschle’s imprint all over it.
When it was followed by another critical e-mail on the base closings penned by Daschle’s 2004 campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, they felt sure of it.
“It’s a situation of sour grapes and being sore losers and it’s unfortunate that they’re lobbing criticism at Sen. Thune, who is doing all he can to help the base,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Daschle and company deny waging any orchestrated campaign against Thune, who became the first challenger to knock off a Senate leader since 1952.
“I think it’s kinda silly actually,” said Daschle, who now serves as a policy adviser to the Washington, D.C., law firm of Alston and Bird. “I haven’t asked anybody [to attack Thune] nor do I know of any coordinated effort … what’s past is past.”
But that likely will not end the speculation, given the animosity the 2004 Thune-Daschle campaign created. And Hildebrand probably presents the greatest fodder for the conspiracy crowd.
He recently opened his own consulting business with another former Daschle aide, Paul Tewes, and now advises South Dakotans United to Protect Social Security, the state entity of a national group mostly led by former DSCC and Democratic Senate campaign staffers.
In that capacity, Hildebrand’s name is on numerous news releases criticizing Thune for his position on overhauling Social Security.
He also acts as a consultant to Dedicated Americans for the Senate and House, political action committee or DASHPAC — Daschle’s leadership PAC. Despite his defeat, Daschle intends to keep the committee open and actively raise money for local, state and federal Democratic candidates across the country.
The close 2004 race was one of the most expensive and bitter Senate contests ever waged. While no one suggests that former Daschle staffers reunite on a regular basis to figure out ways to bring Thune down, the suspicion probably stems from the hard feelings and outright contempt that grew out of the campaign.
With that background, it should have surprised no one that Democrats wanted the world to remember that during the 2004 election Thune claimed he could do a better job of saving Ellsworth Air Force Base than Daschle could because of his ties to President Bush.
“The DSCC believes in holding Republican Senators accountable for their words and actions in real time,” spokesman Phil Singer said in explaining why the committee chose to blast Thune five and half years before his next race. “The people of South Dakota would be better served if Sen. Thune worried less about his political well-being and more about saving the base,” he added.
Singer said the DSCC, which did hire some former Daschle aides, decided to act on its own.
On Tuesday, the Democratic committee even seemed to offer Thune some backhanded praise.
In a news release blasting Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) on the BRAC issue, the DSCC noted Thune’s efforts to soften the Pentagon’s blow. Talent, the DSCC release read, “has refused to sign onto legislation that would delay these closures … introduced by Republican Senator John Thune.”
Hildebrand dismissed the notion that Daschle’s campaign against Thune continues and noted that the Social Security group exists to push all lawmakers who support privatizing Social Security in any way to change their minds.
Hildebrand also stressed that no one asks him nor pays him to go after Thune.
Accusations, denials and old allegiances aside, Democrats still intend to monitor Thune in the Senate.
“There are people with progressive voices in South Dakota who care tremendously about what happens in this state, and if he fails in any way to deliver for this state we’re going to call upon him to explain it to the voters here,” Hildebrand said.
Democrats say they are not bent on revenge, but have simply taken a page from the GOP playbook.
Beginning when Daschle became Minority Leader, the national Republican Party “spent millions of dollars to take down Tom Daschle, and John Thune was right there encouraging it,” Hildebrand said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander — if he wants to be a U.S. Senator he should accept the heat that comes along with the job.”
A Democratic strategist said the party cannot afford to wait until 2009 to go after Thune.
“Senate campaigns are won or lost during the first five years of the term, not during the last year; it would be malpractice for Democrats not to make South Dakotans aware of Thune’s” positions, the source said.
Thune views many of the letter-writing campaigns, negative press releases and organized protests differently.
“It is an outlet to channel some of that negative energy,” Thune said. “There are folks in Washington and back in South Dakota still coming to grips with the election results.”
Thune surrogates have not exactly stood idly by either.
Roger Andal, commander of the South Dakota Disabled American Veterans chapter, has been leading protests against and complaining about Thune’s stance on some veterans issues.
Bloggers have sought to neutralize Andal by pointing out his Democratic bona fides and ties to Daschle.
Andal worked for then-Rep. Daschle in the late 1970s and headed up Veterans for Daschle last year, one site notes.
Nonetheless, Andal said his positions on veterans issues stem from his leadership spot in the veterans group.
“I guarantee you the Daschle people haven’t asked us to do anything,” he said. “We base our actions strictly on the votes [Thune] takes in Congress. If he doesn’t want to take any heat from us then he needs to start voting right.”
A former Daschle campaign aide, who did not want to be identified, said the animosity is not coming from Daschle personally but from Democrats who did not care for Thune’s campaign rhetoric.
“In this last election Thune set the rules. He and his people have no right to whine about those rules now,” the source said. “They set up an operation to scrutinize every single thing that Daschle did, to attack him every single day, and turnabout is fair play. It is naivete to the nth degree” to think that Democrats would not strike back, the aide added.
Thune personally is trying to take the jabs in stride.
When asked about the barbs by a local reporter back in South Dakota he replied: “If I walked on water, there are some people who would say, ‘See, he can’t swim.’”
The former surrogates may bark but Daschle no longer has a dog in the fight, the former campaign aide said.
“The person with the least amount of ill will toward the opponent and outcome is Tom Daschle,” the aide said, adding that instead of taking an ‘I told you so moment’ after the BRAC list was released, Daschle offered to help.
Thune said he left the campaign in the past too.
“We quit campaigning when the election was over. I am reaching out as much as I can” to people who did not like the outcome, he said.
Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.