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Remembering An Act Of Statesmanship

Imagine a bitter, hotly contested U.S. Senate election being decided by 524 votes.

Imagine the next-day explosion that would cause today. The lawyers. The allegations and insinuations. The conspiracy theories on social media.

Imagine if the losing candidate was white and the votes that carried his opponent over the top were not.

Imagine the claims of election fraud. Imagine the racial friction. The resentment. The hardened rhetoric of division.

Then imagine this: an act of statesmanship, by the loser.

That’s what John Thune showed through his pained disappointment and the calls from others for lawsuits and forced recounts back in November of 2002 when he lost his bid to unseat second-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.

By 524 votes. Out of 334,000 cast.

I don’t have to imagine it, of course. I was covering it, before, during, and after the election. I was on the Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud reservations for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on Election Day in November of 2002, stopping at polling places, talking with voters, observing voting, and watching the poll watchers.

I saw nothing suspicious, nothing unsettling, and quite a few things that were inspiring. Some Native voters walked for miles to cast their votes. I spoke to one in White River, and he was planning to head back home.

Native American voters could easily have been excused for believing that their votes wouldn’t matter. Yet, they didn’t seem to believe that at all. Quite the opposite.

And their votes did matter, first to those who cast them and second to Tim Johnson, who was losing the election when the votes from Indian Country came in.

The overwhelming majority of them were for him.

No surprise there, really. Indian Country in South Dakota is Democratic country. And the reservations were a key part of Johnson’s get-out-the-vote work.

The West River reservations, especially Cheyenne River, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge, can be expected to deliver a load of heavily Democratic votes, with the right effort to get them out. And they did. In Todd County, Johnson got 2,027 to 464 for Thune. In Oglala Lakota County, then called Shannon, Johnson got 2,856 to 248 for Thune. And in Dewey County, it was Johnson 1,679 and Thune 598.

But things were looking good for Thune before that. And many Republicans went to sleep that night believing Thune had won. They awoke to the jarring news that he had suffered a razor-thin defeat because of that late-arriving Native American vote.

There were other reasons, of course, including a 2,700-vote edge for Johnson in Minnehaha County and some of his solid showings in Republican-leaning areas where Thune was expected to do better. In a toss-up race, a hundred votes here and there matter. A thousand is a big deal.

And those West River reservations? Big deal. And because votes came in late, the big deal seemed bigger, and shadier, to some.

So away things went, the way they go in politics. The suspicions. The allegations, the presumptions. The calls for a recount. The riled-up Republican lawyers offering service. Donors offering money. And there was Thune, a soft-spoken guy from Murdo with basketball-related friendships in Indian Country, caught in the middle, trying to absorb the loss even as he was being told by some that it was a theft.

They spoke of a ridiculously high Native turnout, and numbers that just couldn’t be real.

But they were. Real. There was no theft. Republican officials in South Dakota responsible for election oversight and election-law enforcement would say so.

And Thune, in surprisingly little time (too little to suit some of his most fervent supporters), decided against raising a ruckus, pressing for a recount, going to court, casting aspersions.

It was a gut call. A smart call. A decent call.

Thune staffers would later say he just didn’t want to further divide the state. They would say that he didn’t want to further disenfranchise Native voters. And he worried about the reactions and ramifications if he called for a recount and the focus was on Indian Country.

Imagine it: a white man questioning the integrity of Native American poll workers and managers. How would that have been seen? What would that have meant to already fractured race relations?

Of course, there was a practical element there, too. Republicans haven’t made serious inroads in the Native vote in South Dakota, especially out west. And challenging the reservation vote in ways that would imply fraud would further hinder that, especially if the recount didn’t find 525 votes, as it wasn’t likely to do.

But at its core, Thune’s decision was, to me, simpler than all that. It was one of those shining moments in a politician’s career, a moment when wisdom and decency prevail, and statesmanship emerges.

You saw it from Al Gore in 2000. You saw it from John Thune in 2002.

Oh, it was a monster of a loss for the three-term U.S. House member, the kind that can recalculate the course of a rising star. So, what did Thune do to move on from all that? Rant and roll? Write the editors? Insult and seek to undermine the process?

No. He got another job. He went back to work. He reorganized his political life. And ran again in two years, against an even more formidable Democratic opponent: third-term U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, his party’s leader in the Senate.

I thought at the time he announced that Thune was crazy and told him so. He said I might be right.

But two years after losing to Johnson, a gritty policy wonk, and tough campaigner, Thune won a race I never imagined he could win. With an inpouring of conservative assistance from across the nation, Thune beat the smooth, astute Daschle at his own voter-turnout game in a nationally watched election.

Oh, Daschle did well. He received 26,000 more votes in 2004 than Johnson had received in 2002 yet lost to Thune by 4,500.

It was instructive, too, to look back at the 2004 vote totals out of Indian Country, especially those in Dewey, Todd, and Oglala Lakota counties. Daschle got 1,920 to 705 for Thune in Dewey, 2,885 to 776 for Thune in Todd, and 3,887 to 564 in Oglala Lakota.

So, there were significantly more votes for Daschle from those reservations than the “suspicious” and “impossible” landslide for Johnson in 2002. But no one cried fraud.

An interesting voting question that arose after that election was how many votes Thune received from “ghost” residents of South Dakota. They’re real people. They just aren’t real residents of the state.

Often going through businesses that provide the residency service, retirees and others who essentially live out of RVs can register their vehicles, get driver’s licenses, and register to vote, as residents.

There have been thousands of them over the years. And however many voted in 2004, you can be pretty certain most voted for Thune.

Would they have tipped the election for him? Probably not. But just as some Republicans still focus on that late election vote count from Indian Country, some Democrats wonder if the RV voters cost Daschle his spot in the Senate.

None of that changes the act of statesmanship by Thune after his defeat in 2002. And, ironically, it probably helped him win the 2004 election.

It doesn’t always work that way. Doing the right thing after a big loss doesn’t always pay off with a big win later on. And some people can’t or won’t do it. We’re seeing a pretty petty example of that in our nation right now.

But what Thune did, and didn’t do, 18 years ago this month endures as an act of statesmanship that might be difficult for some of today’s politicians to fathom.

One in particular.