Politics & Policy

Daschle’s Dakota Past

If old Daschle meets new in 2004, it could be the senator's last campaign.

“The past,” Robert Penn Warren once said, “is always a rebuke to the present.” That past includes 1986, the year of Sen. Tom Daschle’s last competitive election contest in South Dakota. While the pundits say that Daschle will be lucky to survive his 2004 reelection bid, they have yet to focus on the ghosts of Daschle’s last campaign, which could haunt him throughout 2004.

1986 was the midpoint of Ronald Reagan’s second term. While midterms are never a good time for a president’s party, it seemed especially likely that Republicans would lose their 53-47 edge in the Senate. They were defending 22 seats; the Democrats, twelve.

After Mondale’s drubbing in 1984, national Democratic strategists began retooling and mapping out the constrained New Democrat liberalism that would propel Clinton to the White House in 1992. In South Dakota, Tom Daschle was already ahead of the game. In 1978, during his first run for Congress, Daschle ran on image, not issues, and as a social conservative. George McGovern, whom Daschle worked for during his 1968 Senate and 1972 presidential races, was also clobbered in his 1980 reelection bid, another victim of the Reagan revolution. Daschle was taking notes. And he took great pains to shake off the burdens of ’60s and ’70s McGovernism that were sinking Democrats around the country. In the early 1980s, the “Rothenberg Political Report” noted Daschle’s agility with “PR gimmicks” that enhanced his moderate image. A reporter told Rothenberg that “Daschle is good at seizing issues like Agent Orange and gasohol and getting mileage from them. But he has taken pains not to be identified as a classic Kennedy-McGovern liberal.”

In 1981, Congressman Daschle voted for the famous Reagan tax cuts. In 1982, Daschle took flak from his own party for not identifying himself as a Democrat and for not running with the party. Rich Barnes, Democratic chair in Minnehaha County, openly blamed Daschle for the party’s 1982 losses. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that “Daschle didn’t campaign as a Democrat and didn’t use the word Democrat in his ads.” Daschle said he was a “moderate” in 1984 and ran as a “non-partisan” “balanced-budget Democrat” in 1986, when McGovern also helped Daschle by labeling him a “moderate.” National Democratic commentators also touted Daschle as a “New Western Democrat” and highlighted his membership in a group of “new-Western pragmatists.”

Daschle’s opponent in 1986, first-term senator James Abdnor, was one of the nicest men in South Dakota. He was also, however, a weak candidate. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, which is known for firing missiles at Republican senatorial candidates, ran this searing headline: “Magazine: Abdnor worst senator elected in 1980.” The article quoted National Journal’s assessment that Abdnor “is not looked to for leadership on national issues, and his office doesn’t produce many initiatives.” An April poll by Daschle’s pollster Mark Mellman (now Kerry’s pollster) showed Daschle beating Abdnor 48 to 35 percent. George Mitchell chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that year and held a fundraiser in Brookings: “We Democrats don’t have a better candidate anywhere in the country than we do here in South Dakota.”

Here’s how the conventional wisdom about Abdnor’s chances was delicately funneled through the McLaughlin Group:

McLaughlin: “We are now on South Dakota. Abdnor. Barnes?

Barnes: “He’s dead. Congressman Daschle takes that seat.”

Novak: “Exactly right.”

Germond: “Yeah.”

Kondracke: “Farm crisis. He [Abdnor] goes.”

McLaughlin: “McLaughlin–five ‘goes’–bye, bye baby for Abdnor.”

On top of Senator Abdnor’s existing weaknesses, he faced a stiff primary challenge from the sitting governor, the charismatic populist Bill Janklow, who openly said that he thought Abdnor would lose to Daschle: “I can hold that seat for the Republican Party. Jim Abdnor can’t hold that seat.” From the sidelines McGovern called the 1986 Republican primary a “bloodbath” and the Wall Street Journal called it a “blood feud.” William Farber, the long-time head of the USD political science department, said Republicans were on the “verge of destroying themselves.”

Abdnor survived the primary challenge, but ran out of cash. Daschle, however, spent half a million dollars on ads during the first three months of 1986, more than double the combined amount Abdnor and Janklow used bashing each other. By the end of July, Daschle had three times as much cash as Abdnor. An Associated Press headline that month: “Daschle’s campaign war-chest runneth over.” At the end of July, Daschle was ahead by 15 points.

The mid-1980s also witnessed a heartbreaking farm crisis. When Jessica Lange’s movie Country came to my small home town in South Dakota, some farm families literally left the theater, it was so wrenching. In both 1984 and 1985, the price of farmland, a farmer’s principle asset, declined by 12 percent. In March 1985, Governor Janklow sent the entire state legislature to Washington to lobby for farm aid. The secretary of agriculture cancelled a trip to the state during the fall of 1986 to avoid the pent-up Dakota populism. Mark Mellman’s polling firm in 1986 reported to the Daschle campaign that 8 out of 10 voters thought the prosperity of farmers was “extremely important to everyone in South Dakota.”

At a farm forum in June, Abdnor said that lower farm prices might be necessary in the short run to win back export markets from the Europeans: “Maybe we do have to sell below cost for awhile, but I think until we regain that market, that’s the way we’re going to have to go.” Daschle pummeled the sitting senator. He ran an ad for a month denouncing Abdnor’s endorsement of declining farm prices and farmers, who were selling grain at prices 50 percent of what they were three years earlier, rebelled against Abdnor. Mellman reported that, by “more than 3:1, South Dakotans reject the Abdnor approach of lowering prices to increase exports.” Since Abdnor was out of money for ads, he couldn’t respond to Daschle’s ad for three weeks.

Daschle’s pollster also asked Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and 70 percent of farmers said no. Protesting farmers also greeted President Reagan when he visited Sioux Falls in September. Abdnor wisely decided to remain in Washington during the president’s visit.

Running as a conservative Democrat, Daschle was also able to neutralize the impact of social issues. On November 1, in response to criticism of his abortion record, Daschle sent a letter to voters stating that “I am unalterably opposed to abortion on demand” and casting the issue as “a battle over human life.” Daschle enclosed a letter to him from a minister, who vouched for Daschle’s pro-life credentials: “I remember some of the very personal, deeply soul-searching conversations we’ve had on this subject. You used expletives like ‘repulsive’ and ‘gross’ in underscoring your abhorrence of abortion. You even said it is a form of murder, and I believe you are right. The bottom line is you are as opposed to abortion as I am.”

One of Daschle’s 1986 newsletters also attempted to neutralize the gun-control issue: “I am against it. No representative of our state has ever supported restrictive Federal gun-control laws written in Washington and there is a very good reason why. What makes sense in New York is crazy in South Dakota.” Daschle ran, as Howard Dean might say, as a member of the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.

In October, to round out the election in a state with an aging population, the Daschle campaign played the Social Security card, and said that Abdnor voted to cut Social Security and Medicare 37 times in six years.

Despite running as a pro-gun pro-lifer, a crusader for Social Security, and a Bryan-esque populist on farm prices in the middle of a farm crisis during the disastrous Reagan mid-terms, Daschle only won by 4 points. Now, after passes in 1992 and 1998, Daschle is running as a promoter of NARAL and Emily’s List (even though the South Dakota state legislature voted to ban abortions this winter), as someone who just infuriated the NRA by voting for two gun-control measures in the Senate and fumbling away the gun-maker immunity bill (even though the state legislature voted to oppose the gun-control and adopted immunity legislation), as someone who opposed the president’s prescription-drug program, during a presidential cycle with the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate topping the Democratic ticket, against a strong opponent, while trying to keep his liberal caucus from revolting.

If Daschle’s positions during his last campaign in 1986 are invoked by voters to rebuke the positions he now takes as Democratic leader of the Senate, 2004 could see Daschle’s last campaign.

Jon Lauck is a professor of history at South Dakota State University. He is blogging about the Senate race at here.

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