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Dole memorial inspires thoughts of statesmanship, Daschle’s loss and Thune’s weighty decision

Watching former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle speak during the funeral service for former Sen. Bob Dole last week reminded me of a couple of things.

First, there was a time in Washington, D.C., when men like Bob Dole — a profoundly wounded World War II hero and dedicated public servant — really did set party aside for the good of the nation.

Oh, for such times again, when acts of statesmanship and apolitical patriotism were common, not cause for occasional celebration.

And second, it reminded me of a conversation I had just a day earlier with a former Daschle staffer.

We were speaking of Daschle’s eulogy and veered off into other Daschle-related matters. Like the 2004 U.S. Senate race.

"I still resent you a little bit for that abortion story," the former staffer said.

I said: "Well, I still resent myself a little bit for it."

I do. But I don't regret writing it, even though it hurt Daschle late in his 2004 re-election campaign against Republican challenger John Thune.

Thune won, of course, by about 4,500 votes, slightly more than a single percentage point. And Daschle lost. But he lost while receiving 25,859 votes more than Sen. Tim Johnson had received in beating Thune two years earlier.

What changed? Well, Thune had a better get-out-the-vote campaign in 2004. He was a better candidate. He had a tougher message. Daschle hurt himself with some votes and some comments and some policy shifts, including his position on abortion.


Bush still had some coattails, too


And, of course, there was the simple fact that 2004 was a presidential-election year, and George W. Bush still had enough popularity to get South Dakota Republicans to come out and vote. He and Dick Cheney got 60 percent of the vote to 38 percent for the Kerry-Edwards slate. And the GOP turnout benefitted Republicans on down the ticket.

I wrote the abortion story not long before Election Day at the request of Denise Ross, who was the main campaign reporter for the Rapid City Journal that year. She was swamped with other campaign stories and asked me to take a look at Daschle's position over the years, and how it had changed.

It had changed, from one of carefully constructed opposition to abortion to one strongly supporting abortion rights. That was understandable, as Daschle assumed leadership positions for the Democrats, and abortion became a hot-button issue.

Our interview on that issue was the most contentious I had ever had with Daschle. And the story that appeared on the front page of the Journal blew up on what was then a just burgeoning social-media world, including a prominent play on the conservative Drudge Report.

I got calls from Republicans: "Hey, you were all over Drudge this morning with that story."

That was no thrill to me. 

Did the story cost Daschle 4,500 votes? I doubt it. Did it hurt him? No question.

Did I sleep well the night before the story ran, or the night after? No.

But I had done my job as requested by a colleague, the best I could.  I was satisfied with my story.


Separating the story from the vote: It’s what reporters do


I don't think my relationship with Daschle was ever quite the same after that. I regret that, even though I don't regret helping Denise and covering a legitimate story the way I thought it should be covered.

I told that to my friend, the former Daschle staffer, in our conversation last week. And he said: "I know. But I still resent you for that story a little bit."

Then he had a question: "Who'd you vote for in that election?"

"Daschle," I said. 

That stopped him. "Seriously, Daschle? I don't think I knew that."

"Well, it's true," I said. “He’s a good guy and I thought he was doing a good job. And he was the Senate Democratic leader, for heaven's sake. I saw what he did with that power for South Dakota. I covered some of those stories."

"You voted for Daschle, really?” my friend repeated.

"Yeah," I said. "I like John Thune. I liked him then and I like him now. But Daschle seemed like the right choice."

Then my friend pushed further: "Well, who did you vote for in the Johnson vs. Thune race?"

I thought for a minute and remembered: "I didn't vote.

I was working for the Argus in Rapid City in the fall of 2002. And a day or two before Election Day in November I got an Argus assignment to head for the reservations to cover the vote there. I took off before daylight, made my first stop at Crow Creek, then Lower Brule, then Rosebud and Pine Ridge. By the time I got back to Rapid City the polls were closed."

Besides, now that I think about it, I had only recently moved to Rapid City from Sioux Falls. I'm not sure I had yet changed my voter registration.


A squeaker of a loss and a true act of statesmanship


As most political observers in South Dakota know, along with any voter with a good memory, every vote counted in that 2002 race. Johnson beat Thune by 524 votes.

And votes from the West River reservations, which came in last, were crucial to Johnson's win. And there were delays in getting the count out for some Pine Ridge precincts, which were actually handled by the Fall River County Auditor’s Office in Hot Springs.

Of course, some Republicans started crying voter fraud and ballot-box stuffing on the reservation. GOP lawyers from South Dakota and beyond were talking lawsuits and recounts and challenges.

But the key Pine Ridge votes were counted by staff directed by Republican Fall River County Auditor Sue Ganje. And the overall election was overseen by Republican Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine. And the state Attorney General was Republican Mark Barnett.

Hazeltine and Barnett were followed in 2003 by Chris Nelson and Larry Long, again both Republicans.

And the governor in November of 2002 was Republican Bill Janklow.

If there was something wrong in the 2002 count, I'm pretty sure all of those Republicans would have looked for it and found it. They didn't.

And in what stands out now as an inspiring act of statesmanship, Thune decided to accept his defeat and move on.

In doing so, Thune probably set himself up well for his successful run against Daschle two years later.


Odds-on favorite for another term, but Thune isn’t sure


That was three Senate terms ago for Thune. Now as he faces a run for his fourth Senate term, he also faces history. In South Dakota, only Republican Karl Mundt won four U.S. Senate terms, and he barely served any of the second half of his fourth term because of illness.

Thune is close to a sure thing to win re-election if he runs. But he’s not sure he wants to run again.

Say what? Yeah.

Thune told reporter Tom Lawrence in an exclusive for the Black Hills Pioneer that his wife, Kimberley, is lobbying him against another run. Thune is thinking about it pretty seriously. He said he'll announce a decision soon.

It's tempting to say, "Man, you didn't see Daschle giving up that Senate seat willingly."

But Washington is a different place these days. Much different. Painfully different for those who care about this democracy. Both major parties are different. But right now the GOP is the most different, and in a very disturbing way.

In an un-American way, I think you could argue.

It’s the most likely to believe in fiction, and to promote that fiction, such as the lie that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election that gave Democrat Joe Biden the victory, wrongly unseating Republican  Donald Trump.

Fiction. Nutty talk. It has been discredited many times over by reliable election sources — Republican, Democrat, and independent. And it’s nutty talk that’s regurgitated by more Republicans than I ever would have imagined possible.


Somebody’s got to fight the nutty stuff


And Trump, who started the nutty talk and continues to promote it for his own benefit, still looms over the party and the land like a dark cloud.

Thune doesn't like Trump. Trump doesn't like Thune. Trump doesn't forget that Thune called for him to withdraw from the presidential race late in the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton after a video clip was released of Trump making claims of sexually assaulting women.

Rather than withdraw, Trump went on to lose the popular vote but win the decisive Electoral College. So then for four years, we had a passionate purveyor of lies, lies, and more lies in the White House.

And the lies continue now that Trump is out of the White House.

Meanwhile, Thune is second in command of the GOP Senate caucus behind Mitch McConnell, who will turn 80 in February.  But McConnell was just elected to his seventh six-year U.S. Senate term last year and doesn't seem inclined to leave.

My Democratic friend, the former Daschle staffer, joked that McConnell is "The Prince of Darkness. He might never retire, or die."

Beyond McConnell’s potential longevity, Thune doesn't appear to be enjoying himself all that much as a Republican leader. Or as a U.S. senator, for that matter. He has a wife, kids, and grandkids back here in South Dakota.

And he likes this place, a lot.

It’s a tough time to enjoy yourself in Washington, D.C, especially if you’re a reasonable Republican and decent human being like Thune.

And I've always kind of thought that the only thing better than being a U.S. senator is being a former U.S. senator.

You still have the prestige. You have a great package of benefits. And you can quite easily find work allowing you to make more money than you did as a senator, with less effort and few if any crazy people to deal with. 

Plus, you don't have to dance to the bizarre tunes played by the Donald Trump band —  far too many of whom are mean-spirited, science-hating, truth-denying lunatics.

Who needs that when you can be back home playing with the grandkids?

Well, somebody who loves the Senate and feels a sense of responsibility to public service, and who also might feel the need to stay and fight the loonies, to speak truth to fanatical fiction.

We’ll soon know which John Thune will choose.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.