Daschle’s loss marked the first time in 52 years a party leader has been defeated, according to the AP, and delivered a stunning blow to the Democratic Party.
Thune beat Daschle 51 percent to 49 percent, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting, according to Washington Post projections.
“I am enormously grateful that you have given me the opportunity to serve as your next U.S. senator,” Thune told a crowd of supporters in South Dakota, where he also thanked his family for supporting his sixth campaign in 10 years.
Thune, a 43-year-old Murdo, S.D., native, ran neck-and-neck with Daschle up to the final hours of the campaign. The race was Thune’s second attempt at gaining a Senate seat in the largely Republican state of only 764,000 residents. In 2002 he lost to Sen. Tim Johnson by only 524 votes.
During the campaign, Thune fought to paint Daschle as a liberal in a conservative state and out of touch with the needs of South Dakota voters. Thune’s camp focused particularly on Daschle’s opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans also accused Daschle of opposing President Bush on multiple issues then running ads in key Republican strongholds showing his support of the president.
He “seems to have a split personality,” state GOP leader Randy Frederick told the Los Angeles Times prior to the election. “He attacks Bush in Washington, then runs commercials here showing him hugging Bush.”
Daschle, who is known in the state for his annual drive through its 66 counties, has a record of securing money for state projects and for adding to the state’s influence on the national stage. His campaign focused on affordable health care for South Dakotans and on his Senate leadership and service to the state.
Thune’s win marks a significant victory for Republicans, who have been eager to dethrone Daschle, one of President Bush’s most vocal opponents. In his three terms as South Dakota’s senior senator, Daschle has fought a highly partisan, highly visible battle against GOP initiatives, leading the party to launch a massive campaign against him on Thune’s behalf.
The Democrats must now choose new Senate leadership. A likely successor for the top job is Senate Whip Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid, Daschle’s second in command for six of the minority leader’s 10-year reign, would face little challenge, though Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who previously ran for the post, has not indicated whether or not he would run again, according to the Washington Post.
If Reid does become minority leader, Sens. Byron Dorgan, N.D., and Dick Durbin, Ill., are likely candidates for his whip post.