Senate Leader Frist to Campaign Against Daschle

Times Staff Writer

In the Senate chamber, the rules of decorum prohibit senators from speaking ill of one another. Even in today’s highly partisan atmosphere, they refer to each other as “the esteemed gentleman from Tennessee” and “my good friend from South Dakota.”

But outside the chamber, anything goes. Thus, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), in a rare action for a Senate majority leader, is headed to South Dakota on Saturday to campaign for the defeat of his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

The unusual trip underscores the bare-knuckle fight being waged in about 10 states for control of the narrowly divided Senate. It is a battle that has heightened tensions in the chamber and contributed to legislative paralysis in the Senate this year.


“It’s an election year,” said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, Frist’s predecessor as Republican leader. “The Senate is very close. Everybody wants to be in control. It’s not going to be pretty.”

The air is so thick with partisanship that Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a former majority leader and the Senate’s longest-serving member, said April 28 on the Senate floor: “It used to be unheard of for Senate leaders to seek an active role against each other in campaigns. That time has apparently gone. Has honor gone too? Who cares about honor when a Senate seat might be gained?”

Until recently, Republicans were confident of holding onto their small majority in the chamber, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who typically votes with the Democrats.

After all, Democrats must defend more Senate seats than Republicans this year, including five seats from increasingly inhospitable Southern states that President Bush carried in 2000. And Republicans are salivating at the prospect of ousting Daschle in South Dakota, which Bush won by double digits. A Senate majority or minority leader has not lost reelection since gasoline cost 27 cents a gallon -- Republican Barry Goldwater defeated Democratic Majority Leader Ernest McFarland of Arizona in 1952.

But Democrats now appear to have a fighting chance at gaining the majority. Three GOP senators are retiring, and a fourth faces a potentially tough race. Bush’s popularity has fallen -- and Democrats are hoping his coattails will wither away -- amid continuing turmoil in Iraq. And, political analysts said, Senate Democrats are energized by the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Of the 34 seats up for reelection, 19 are held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. About 10 seats -- eight with incumbents who are not seeking reelection -- are expected to be competitive. In California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is favored against Republican challenger Bill Jones, a former California secretary of state.


But for the Democrats to gain control of the Senate, they must hold onto some, if not most, of the seats being vacated by retiring Democrats in five Southern states. That won’t be easy; Bush won all five -- Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida -- in 2000.

Democrats see opportunities to pick up seats in other states, including Illinois, Colorado, Oklahoma and Alaska.

Republicans see a chance of increasing their majority, particularly if Bush runs strong in the states with competitive Senate races. “We’re fighting in territory that’s good for us,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But the GOP appears unlikely to reach the magic number of Senate politics: 60, the vote total needed to end Democrat-led filibusters that have blocked Republican initiatives.

Frist’s trip to South Dakota is unusual; historians recall very few examples of a Senate majority leader campaigning against the minority leader.

In 1900, before there were formal party floor leaders, Ohio Sen. Marcus Hanna, a national Republican leader from its “gold-standard” wing, got into a floor fight with South Dakota Sen. Richard Pettigrew, a member of the Silver Republicans.


When the Senate adjourned, Hanna got on a train and went to South Dakota to campaign -- successfully, as it turned out -- against Pettigrew’s reelection, said Don Ritchie, the Senate’s associate historian.

Daschle, a three-term incumbent who has led the Senate Democrats since 1995, is opposed by former Rep. John R. Thune, who lost a 2002 Senate race -- one that Bush urged him to enter -- against the state’s other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson, by 524 votes.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks campaigns, calls the South Dakota Senate race a tossup.

Frist, who plans to travel to Sioux Falls and Rapid City on Saturday and has been raising campaign funds for Thune, defended his efforts. He said he felt obligated to help because he recruited Thune to run for the Senate two years ago.

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said the senator “has said many times that he’s going out there to campaign for John Thune. He has great respect for Sen. Daschle as a leader of the Democratic Party

Asked about the trip, Daschle said: “I have a responsibility to the Senate and to my caucus and to my state to do all that I can to work together with Sen. Frist, and I intend to do that. He is the Republican leader, and I’m the Democratic leader, and I think in order for us to continue to ensure that the Senate can be productive, we’re going to try to find a way to work together. These are decisions that he has made, and I’ll leave it at that.”


The trip promises to further strain relations between the two, who get together socially only at Senate functions.

Frist’s colleagues say that any deterioration of Senate comity is due to Democrats.

“A breach of Senate decorum is not allowing us to have votes on welfare reform, tax cuts, energy policy, well-qualified judges,” said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), referring to Democratic-led filibusters.

Republicans are trying to portray Daschle as putting the interests of the national Democratic Party ahead of the interests of South Dakotans. They describe him as the ringleader of the Democratic obstructionism that has blocked Bush’s agenda, such as passage of energy legislation that could aid the state’s ethanol industry.

But Daschle aides think Frist’s visit could backfire. “People in South Dakota don’t like outsiders telling them how to vote,” said Daschle’s deputy campaign manager, Dan Pfeiffer.

And the minority leader, who won reelection in 1998 with 62% of the vote, is taking nothing for granted -- bombarding the South Dakota airwaves with ads contending that his leadership position has benefited the state.

Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he would be surprised if South Dakota voters ditched Daschle at a time Democrats have a shot of gaining control of the Senate, which would make Daschle the majority leader again.


In his remarks on the Senate floor last month, Byrd said the “great deliberative body” in which he had served for 45 years has become a “factory that manufactures sound-bite votes that make great fodder for 30-second political ads, but which do very little to address the many, many challenges facing this country.”

And, he asked plaintively, “What has become of civility, old-fashioned civility? What has become of comity?”