Sen. Tom Daschle added a dubious distinction to his long political career — he became the first Senate party leader in more than 50 years to be voted out of office. And the White House couldn't be happier.
With 824 of the state's 827 precincts reporting, the Democrat had 192,157 votes Tuesday, or 49 percent, while his Republican challenger, former Rep. John Thune (search), received 197,642 votes, or 51 percent.
The GOP had targeted Daschle, the Senate minority leader, claiming he had been the chief obstruction to President Bush on such issues as tax cuts, judicial nominees and the war in Iraq.
For example, he angered Republicans and unnerved a few Democrats when, with the nation on the brink of war with Iraq, he said he was "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."
Daschle later said he regretted the timing of his criticism and expressed strong support for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Thune, 43, also argued that Daschle had lost touch with most South Dakotans, particularly on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Daschle lost his seat after a bruising, $26 million contest. He and Thune spent more than $50 apiece on each of the state's 502,000 registered voters, as of mid-October. That does not include the millions of dollars being spent by outside groups, most of them opposed to Daschle.
South Dakotans were bombarded for months by attack ads. Many households got stacks of mailings and several telephone calls a day in the campaign's final month.
South Dakota is a heavily Republican state but has traditionally sent Democrats to Washington. Daschle's rise to the top levels of government has given this sparsely populated rural state a lot of political clout, a point the 56-year-old senator made throughout his campaign.
Elected to the House in 1978 by just 139 votes and re-elected three times, Daschle went to the Senate in 1986, becoming minority leader in 1994 and majority leader in 2001. He returned to the minority leader job just 18 months later, after the 2002 midterm elections.
Daschle, who has driven across South Dakota each August for a decade to meet with constituents, had won his Senate re-elections easily before Tuesday.
During the campaign, Daschle touted his leadership status and the federal dollars and numerous projects he has landed for the state.
An exit poll of 1,551 South Dakota voters done for The Associated Press showed Daschle did well among voters who consider themselves moderates and those who are most worried about the economy and the war in Iraq.
Thune got solid support from those who see themselves as conservative Protestants and voters who put the most emphasis on protecting moral values and fighting terrorism, according to the poll conducted for the AP and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
As for who will take over as Senate minority leader, one possibility is the minority whip, Sen. Harry Reid (search) of Nevada, who easily retained his seat on Tuesday.