New Senators Begin Their Terms on Capitol Hill
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GWEN IFILL: The nation’s most exclusive freshman class began orientation sessions this week on Capitol Hill. Nine newly-elected senators– seven Republicans and two Democrats– came to town to learn the ropes, from setting up an office to mastering parliamentary procedures.
We are joined now by two them: Republican John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the House who defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle; and Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado, the state’s attorney general who defeated Republican Pete Coors. Senators-elect, welcome and congratulations.
Senator Salazar, you won in a red state as a Democrat, 51-47 percent, a tough race. Looking back on how the rest of your party did in this election, how would you say that you won?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: I think Colorado still has very much the independence voice of the West. And I think that voice of independence meant that they were voting for someone who understood agriculture, who also understood the importance of working across party lines.
I had done that as attorney general for six years. And I think the people of the state felt that I had the experience to represent them on the most important issues facing our country today.
GWEN IFILL: And they separated it out completely, Senator, from whatever was going on on the national ticket?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: I think so very much. I think if you look at the results in Colorado from the United States Senate all the way down to the House of Representatives and the Colorado state Senate, the voters of the state made a choice and did buck the national trend.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Thune, you won against an entrenched Democrat, not so entrenched he was the Senator Minority Leader, Tom Daschle, an even closer margin. 51-49 percent. How did you do that?
SEN.-ELECT JOHN THUNE: Well, it was a tough race, Gwen, but I think that, you know, people in this country and people in South Dakota want to see the institutions of their government work effectively for them. And I think that one of the central themes in my campaign was that the Senate is locked in gridlock.
There are a lot of things that are stalled out that aren’t getting done; things that are important to South Dakota like comprehensive energy policy that, you know, promotes renewable fuels and helps lower the cost of gasoline, lowering health care costs, getting judges an up and down vote, and, you know, growing the economy and creating jobs.
Those sorts of things and the legislative proposals that would help bring, make those things happen, have been dying in the United States Senate. And a principal argument that I made with the people of South Dakota is that, you know, is we need to break the gridlock, we need to put aside the partisanship and the political games and begin to move this agenda forward again. And I think that all across the country people responded to that argument.
GWEN IFILL: You ran for the other Senate seat against another Democrat two years ago, yet you lost by 542–524 votes, very narrow. What was different this time?
SEN.-ELECT JOHN THUNE: You know, I think this time around, you know, obviously there was a presidential race which I think helped with turnout. We did a much better job of getting the vote out this time than we did two years ago. And I think in this race there was real definition on the issues, a lot of contrast, two years ago maybe not so much so.
And I think that between Sen. Daschle and myself, we had a lot of difference on the issues and I’ve always maintained that elections are about differences. And I think this year in South Dakota we gave, you know, people a very clear choice. And I also think that for better or worse, by virtue of his position as a national Democrat Party leader, Sen. Daschle had to block things on the agenda that people in South Dakota were very supportive of.
So I think the whole issue of obstructionism was a key central theme throughout the course of our campaign, and I think in a lot of races around the country, that was also a theme that a lot of Senate candidates sounded.
GWEN IFILL: Senator-Elect Salazar, let’s talk a little bit about how you were able to do this, a little bit more about how were you able to do this, because it seems to me were you must be walking around in Washington this week with a lot of dejected Democrats asking you if there is something they should know about how to win these elections. What do you tell them?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: I’ve told people that I think it’s important that we work on the issues that are most important to America and to the American people.
From my point of view and Colorado, those issues were about national security and homeland security and making sure that we act with a sense of urgency on those issues. I think that winning the war on terror is something that is going to be very important for us, it has to be something we work on as a united country.
I also believe that we need to bring back economic security to the United States of America and to its people and I, in particular, being from a rural area, strongly believe that we need to put a focus on the problems that face agriculture in rural America.
In fact, Sen.-Elect Thune and I were having a conversation about a possible initiative we can work on together on that, so I think when all is said and done, that having the kind of candidacy that really addresses the issues that the ordinary everyday Coloradoan or person in South Dakota or person in New Mexico care about is really what ultimately wins the election in the end.
GWEN IFILL: Sen.-Elect Thune, at last count, I heard you raised $13 million; Sen. Daschle raised $18 million. Why did it cost so much and was it worth it?
SEN.-ELECT JOHN THUNE: Well, I know people in South Dakota were weary by the time it was all over. That is an incredible sum of money in a state the size of South Dakota.
But I think the race drew a lot of national attention because of its significance relative to the things I talked about earlier, and that is, getting agenda going again. And, you know, a lot of races around the country this year were expensive races, ours probably more so.
I never envisioned when I got into the campaign, that we would need to raise or spend that amount of money, but I think that, you know, people around the country were very interested in our campaign and interested in other campaigns this year and were stepping forward and making contributions. They were engaged in the political process.
I frankly would like to see campaign laws that, you know, made it… that only people who actually could vote for you, in other words, the people who lived in your state could contribute to your campaign. But regrettably that’s probably not likely to happen.
And there was just a lot of national interest and so people contributed to both campaigns and it took a lot of money if you wanted to be in a race in South Dakota this year and to be able to compete with the kind of money that Sen. Daschle was able to raise, it took a lot for us to do that.
But at the end of the day, you know, we did what we needed to do. We had a strong message, a strong organization and the finances to be competitive. And I think that led to our success.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Salazar, I don’t mean to understate the amount of money you spent as well. You spent $7 million and Pete Coors spent what, about $6 million. Was it worth it for you?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: You know, the actual numbers I think were closer to $9 million apiece. And by the time you take in the outside expenditures, it may be 25 or 30 million dollars. But this was the most expensive race in the history of the state of Colorado.
Your question, was it worth it? I’m obviously sitting here today as senator-elect for Colorado and I’m very proud to be the senator for the people of the state. I look forward working with Democrats and Republicans alike to see whether we can unify this country.
The day after the election, President Bush and I had a conversation and I told him that one of the greatest challenges that we face as a nation was figuring out a way of uniting our country so it wasn’t so divided between blue and red. And I think there are lots of common issues on which we can work on together.
GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised to get that phone call from the president?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: I thought I would speak with him. I did not expect I would get a phone call from him immediately the day after the election. But I’m going to reach out and work with him.
Tomorrow morning actually Sen.-Elect Thune and I and the freshman class will be meeting with the president and hope to be able to establish a kind of bipartisanship that I have seen in my state of Colorado for the last six years while I’ve served there as attorney general.
GWEN IFILL: Sen.-Elect Thune, the Senate is famous for being a very clubby atmosphere. You arrived there having defeated one of their own. Do you have any sense of resentment coming from the other members of the club?
SEN.-ELECT JOHN THUNE: You know, I don’t, Gwen. And I think that elections there is a the lot of emotion, there’s a lot of intensity surrounding an election, but when it’s over, I think people realize we have to work together for the common good of the country, for the common good of our individual states.
And, you know, as Sen.-Elect Salazar has mentioned, I think that there are a lot of issues where we have common ground. And he and I represent agricultural states. We have an opportunity to work together on those types of issues, and I think that on a broader range, with respect to a lot of the national issues that were talked about throughout the course of the campaign, we have an opportunity now, after an election, to sit down and to begin to make this process work better in a more constructive way for the American people.
I think the thing that people were frustrated with across the country this last year and what led to a lot of these election results was this frustration that there’s too much gridlock, there’s too much partisanship, there are too many political games being played in Washington, DC, and as a consequence, the people’s work is not getting done. I hope that we can build bridges — that we can work together.
My experience here so far has been very positive. I think people on both sides of the aisle have stepped forward, they’ve welcomed us. And I want to continue to build on that as a foundation hopefully that will lead to legislative successes that will make this country stronger both here at home and abroad.
GWEN IFILL: Sen.-Elect Salazar, your brother John was also elected this year to the House. Are you two comparing notes?
SEN.-ELECT KEN SALAZAR: You know, I talk to him every day. I love my brother very much. We grew up with the same kind of values that you grow up with in rural Colorado. And I look forward to seeing him every day.
We are looking for an apartment together here in Washington. I’ve been amazed at how expensive the rents are so I have been following Sen. Elect John Thune around as we look at the possibility of rooming in a similar place. And we may end of having ten of us living in the same place.
GWEN IFILL: That doesn’t sound like that would be fun at all. Sen.-Elect Thune, who are you comparing notes with this fist week?
SEN.-ELECT JOHN THUNE: Well, we’ve had a really good opportunity, as Ken said, you know, the freshman class, we came in and had a lot of chance to interact and I think we’ve developed a real good chemistry. And I think that’s the foundation on which we can work together.
So a lot of our interaction today has been with the freshman class, with each other, but also with some of the more senior members. And we have both had an opportunity to interact with our respective leaderships and other more senior members really frankly on both sides.
The orientation process has been very much about, you know, having representation on both sides, both as freshmen and also with the more senior members here in the Senate. And so I can’t say that I have… I’m not sure that anybody has adopted me, is going to let me move into their basement at this point.
But we are all doing the same thing right now and that is trying to get offices up and going, connecting computers and phones and hoping to find a place to live.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Sen.-Elect John Thune, welcome back to Washington and Sen.-Elect Ken Salazar, welcome to Washington, good luck.