Daschle Defeated in Reelection Bid

Times Staff Writer

The defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was a victory for Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had grown increasingly frustrated by his aggressive opposition to many of President Bush’s legislative initiatives and judicial nominations.

After election results seesawed through the evening, Republican John Thune, a three-term former congressman, emerged as the victor early today.

The most closely watched, bitterly contested Senate race in the country, the South Dakota campaign was also the most expensive. Together, Thune and Daschle spent an estimated $35 million to $40 million to bombard South Dakotans for months with nonstop attack ads and campaign mailers.


The South Dakota fight reflected the bitter partisanship and stark divisions that characterized the 2004 elections. Daschle warned that Thune would act as a rubber stamp for Bush and the Republican leadership and, as a junior senator, would be unable to deliver federal money and vital projects to South Dakota. Thune attacked Daschle as a pillar of Washington’s Democratic elite, a man out of touch with his roots.

Not since 1952, when Majority Leader Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.) lost to conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, has the leader of a party in the Senate been defeated in a bid for reelection.

Normally, congressional leaders come from safe districts, and the opposing party does not target them. But in this polarized campaign year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) outraged Democrats by personally campaigning for Thune in South Dakota.

Still, Democrats hoped that Daschle’s stature in the Senate and his reputation among South Dakota voters for delivering federal largess to the rural, sparsely populated state would ensure his survival.

“People in that state, in South Dakota, know that Tom Daschle delivers for them,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told CNN. “Why would anyone in South Dakota ... want to give up having someone who is Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate?”

But Daschle was running in a heavily Republican state that voted solidly Tuesday for Bush. And Republicans used Daschle’s stature against him, presenting him as a symbol of gridlock in Washington and of the efforts of liberal Democrats to block Bush’s tax-cutting agenda.


“I’ve always described Daschle as the Darth Vader of the U.S. Senate, from the perspective of conservatives like me,” said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a Washington-based conservative group that poured money into Thune’s campaign.

Conservatives first targeted Daschle during the 2002 South Dakota Senate race, when he wasn’t even a candidate, Moore said in an interview Tuesday. In that race, Thune lost by just 524 votes to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, the state’s junior senator, but Daschle was a frequent Thune target.

Conservatives said Daschle was two people: “the Tom Daschle who was the prairie populist when he was in South Dakota, and the Tom Daschle who was the darling of Hollywood and the East Coast elites in Washington,” Moore said.

The argument gradually gained ground with many South Dakotans, said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

“The argument of Republicans [against Daschle] has taken its toll over the years. There is that assessment that he is out of step,” Loomis said.

Although Daschle made a point of visiting every county in his sprawling state, Loomis said, “he can take that drive and visit every county every year and it simply may not be enough when you’re the leader of the party.”


Daniel Pfeiffer, Daschle’s spokesman, said the senator had fought hard against the relentless attacks aimed at him.

“For three years, they have spared no expense to beat Tom Daschle,” Pfeiffer said. “Tom has had to fight day in and day out to beat back those attacks on his record and his character. And here we are, the polls haven’t yet closed, and he’s still standing. It is a testament to Daschle’s long and deep support in this state.”