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South Dakota Battle Over the Control of the Senate

October 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: In Washington, he’s the Democratic leader of the United States Senate. But to senior citizens in the tiny town of Lennox, South Dakota, he’s simply Tom.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Hello, Iva.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many of his constituents have met Tom Daschle before, and he has used that personal approach to win three Senate terms in a state dominated by Republicans.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Thank you for being here.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now, as Daschle asks South Dakotans to send him back to the Senate for a fourth time, he gently reminds them of the power that flows from his leadership position.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I’m now fortunate enough to sit at one of most powerful desks in the world. Right now that desk belongs to the people of South Dakota. I’m very fortunate to be able to put South Dakota’s agenda on the national agenda.

KWAME HOLMAN: Daschle’s Republican opponent also is well-known and well-schooled in the art of personal politics.

John Thune served three terms as South Dakota’s lone representative to the U.S. House, and two years ago narrowly lost his bid to take the seat of the state’s other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson. The margin was 524 votes.

JOHN THUNE: It’s like losing a game on a last second shot, you know?

KWAME HOLMAN: This time, Thune’s locked in a statistical dead heat with Daschle, who has more resources and a superior statewide network.

JOHN THUNE: I think there are certain times in life where you just have to step up and do what you believe is right. And this race, to me, was a race that needed to be run.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thune accuses Daschle of leading Senate Democrats on an obstructionist assault against the policies of President Bush and the Republican Congress.

JOHN THUNE: By getting new leadership in there, we can get things going again, and we can begin to solve the problems and meet the challenges that many people here in South Dakota are dealing with.

KWAME HOLMAN: Daschle is unapologetic.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I think there are some things this administration has tried to do that are wrong.

I think the Medicare drug bill that has passed was one I wish we could have stopped because now we know the consequences.

That legislation is bad for South Dakota, and I feel badly that we weren’t able to stop it.

But there are occasions when bad law has… has really created circumstances that I think reflect exactly why we need to be there, and check the president and check this administration.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Dakota’s 750,000 residents are sprinkled across the 400-mile length of the state. Political allegiance is largely Democratic in and around Sioux Falls in the East, but becomes increasingly Republican heading West toward Rapid City. Many we talked with said they’ve tired of an increasingly negative campaign.

Still, they feel strongly about the issues being discussed, like the need for affordable health care. Pam Taylor runs a small oil company in Sioux Falls, and says she knows and likes Tom Daschle personally.

Yet Taylor breaks with him over his opposition to a Republican plan that would allow small businesses to band together to provide cheaper employee health insurance.

PAM TAYLOR: It costs my company for 14 employees $131,000. That’s average for health insurance. That’s too much. So all we’re asking for is the chance that big labor has, and that big corporations have to band together and try to find a better solution for a health insurance plan.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Daschle worries that the Republican plan could discriminate against companies with older workers.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Because it undermines the ability that states have right now to ensure that all people can be covered. But the concept makes a lot of sense, and I strongly support the concept.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kathleen Perkins runs the Coffee Roasting Company in Sioux Falls’ Empire Mall. She, too, wants to provide health insurance for her employees.

KATHLEEN PERKINS: I feel ethically responsible for covering their health care.

KWAME HOLMAN: So Perkins, a longtime Democrat, contacted Daschle, accepted his approach to health care, and since has worked for Daschle’s reelection.

KATHLEEN PERKINS: He looks out for the middle class, he looks out for the average guy. And I think, you know, as far as taxing and everything, the upper… you know, certain percentage of the population, they are getting the tax breaks right now, and that seems to be a Republican issue.

Whereas Daschle tends to focus more on getting tax breaks for the middle class and focusing more on just the everyday person.

KWAME HOLMAN: Drive 65 miles west of Sioux Falls along Interstate 90, and the town of Mitchell pops up. For gas station owner Lance Carson, the most important campaign issues are social ones. He likes that John Thune supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Tom Daschle doesn’t.

LANCE CARSON: Does it need to be a constitutional amendment? I don’t know, you know, but I think that… I think that that is one way to correct it. I think that it’s… are we going to put it on the back burner? No. I think it’s an issue that needs to be dissolved right now.

JOHN THUNE: Two-thirds of the people in South Dakota are in favor of protecting marriage through a Federal Marriage Amendment.

You know, two-thirds of the people in South Dakota, probably higher than that, are in favor of an amendment to protect the American flag. You know, the Second Amendment, gun owners’ rights, abortion — those are not wedge issues in South Dakota.

KWAME HOLMAN: Daschle insists they are.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: It’s the wedge issues that may motivate a certain group of people, but certainly don’t reflect the overall concerns of the vast majority of the people of our state. I think those concerns are the cost of drugs, the cost of health care, access to health care, the cost of tuition, and the cost of gas prices.

KWAME HOLMAN: In recent federal elections here, Democratic and Republican candidates have been separated by only a few hundred votes.

But that balance could be upset this year by a big increase in the turnout of Indian voters. American Indians make up 8 percent of South Dakota’s population, one of the largest Indian voting constituencies in the nation.

One of the tribes of the great Sioux nation lives on a reservation in lower Brule, in the center of the state. Its tribal council headquarters sits on a hill high above the Missouri River.

Some of the tribe’s buffalo roam just 200 yards away. Michael Jandreau is the tribal council chairman. He expects nearly 10,000 more Indians will turn out to vote this year than did two years ago. 80 percent of them, he believes, for Tom Daschle.

MICHAEL JANDREAU: And they will support Tom Daschle probably more in opposition to the Republican Party than John Thune.

KWAME HOLMAN: John Thune acknowledges Republicans need to improve their standing with local tribes, but he argues Tom Daschle has done little to improve life on the reservations.

JOHN THUNE: If you look at the poverty, the unemployment, the addiction, the mortality, they’re at record levels. I mean, things have not improved.

MICHAEL JANDREAU: Not because our senator, Sen. Daschle, hasn’t tried.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Jandreau reminds that John Thune also served time in Congress.

MICHAEL JANDREAU: And those years, needless to say, were not very productive on his part for Indian affairs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Another 150 miles west is the town of Wanblee, where Republican support is strong. Stanley Porch has raised cattle and planted wheat for 50 years and today tends 10,000 acres with his son and grandson. Porch knows the two Senate candidates, and sees good in both of them.

STANLEY PORCH: I like Tom Daschle, personally well. But the thing that bothers me about tom Daschle is when he left South Dakota to be a senator, he was a relatively moderate Democrat. And what happens is pretty soon they’ll take issues that are prevalent and popular in South Dakota, but they will vote according to the more liberal side. And so when they’re back there, they vote… they say one thing, they come out here they say something else.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Given the way media works today, anything you say in Washington is heard almost instantaneously in South Dakota. So it would be impossible to say one thing in Washington, and say something else in South Dakota. People in our state just would never let anybody get away with that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Finally, on the western edge of South Dakota is Rapid City, the state’s other large population center, and one that has been traditionally Republican.

MAN: I like Thune, definitely with Thune. I’m not a Daschle fan at all.

MAN: I’ve already voted. I voted absentee three weeks ago.

KWAME HOLMAN: Can you tell us who you supported?

MAN: Well, it wasn’t Tom Daschle, I can guarantee you that.

KWAME HOLMAN: But even here at Tally’s Cafe downtown, there still was the possibility of support for Tom Daschle.

WOMAN: I’m still undecided. I still… I need to sit down with the issues and read it myself, and try not to watch the news so much.

KWAME HOLMAN: In a race that is essentially tied, John Thune is hoping that President Bush’s near certain victory in South Dakota will mean more votes for him on Election Day; Tom Daschle also is counting on some of those same voters to split their ballot and vote for him.