|Johnson Holds Off Thune, Recount Possible|
Nov. 6, 2002 -- It came down to the last precinct in South Dakota for incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson to claim victory in the closest national race in the 2002 election.
With all precincts reporting results, Johnson kept his seat with a razor-thin 528-vote -- or roughly .16 percent -- margin of victory.
Early returns gave Johnson a solid lead, but as Tuesday stretched into Wednesday morning, Thune crept ahead, running a lead of 2,000 to 3,000 votes through much of the early morning hours.
But as final tallies began to pour in Wednesday morning, Thune's lead evaporated as Native American ballots and Johnson strongholds reported their results.
Thune emerged after a few hours of sleep to discover his slim lead dissolving with every new precinct that reported. Talking with reporters, he acknowledged a recount request was a distinct possibility.
"If the margin is really narrow, I don't know what the Johnson folks will do if they end up on the short end. If we end up on the short end, I don't know the answer. We will have to wait until the final tally is in," he told reporters for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader this morning.
Johnson said he believed the vote would hold up to any recount, but stressed he wanted the process completely quickly.
"Every vote was counted, and every vote was counted correctly," Johnson said. "I hope we can get this behind us fairly quickly."
Thune told reporters later in the day he would await next week's official tally before deciding whether to request a recount.
If he does make such a request, the recount would take place on Nov. 25, but Thune appeared to doubt whether it would change the result. He also said he would only request a re-tallying if irregularities appear in the final totals.
"I've got to believe in South Dakota things are done pretty much by the book and done right, but you never know," Thune said.
When election workers began at 8 a.m. CST to tally the last four precincts from Shannon County in southwestern South Dakota, which included the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Johnson surged back ahead.
Within 45 minutes of the final tallies from Shannon County, Johnson appeared to declare victory. In a speech carried by CNN and many South Dakota television channels, Johnson pledged to return to the Senate carrying a message of bipartisanship. Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle are the only two South Dakota Democrats still holding statewide office.
"I know that all of us working together, Congressman [Bill] Janklow, Gov. [Mike] Rounds, Sen. Daschle and myself, we can bridge the ground between political parties," he said. "That's what I am committed to doing."
National media organizations had hyped the contest as a proxy battle between Daschle and President Bush. National parties and independent groups poured money and people into the state trying to secure the seat.
Despite the fight, the Argus Leader wrote, "Johnson's win would be bittersweet for Daschle, his Democratic colleague in the Senate, who must surrender his leadership position to Republican Sen. Trent Lott after the GOP finished the mid-term elections with a gain of two seats."