South Dakota Senate Race a Proxy War

One-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and the state's at-large Republican Rep. John Thune are racing for the Senate seat in South Dakota, but the showdown is turning out to be a proxy war between President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

A Thune victory could turn the one-seat Democratic majority in the Senate over to the Republicans. It would also be an immense blow to Daschle's prestige, even though South Dakota's senior senator is not up for re-election.

"We are poised to be a part of changing the course of history in this country," Thune said recently.

"No matter where you are in America the political future of the country is going to depend in a large measure on what happens in South Dakota," Johnson said.

Thune had planned to run for governor but changed his mind, some say, after a bit of arm-twisting by Bush himself. The two have had enough discussions that Thune has earned the nickname "Big John" from the president, a sign that the two are communicating frequently.

The president will visit South Dakota Wednesday to campaign for Thune. He will bring along his Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to speak about increased ethanol use and crop subsidies, two issues being debated in the Senate right now that upon passage would represent big victories for Johnson and Daschle among the state's large farming population.

At a recent dinner for South Dakota's favorite son, former Sen. George McGovern, Johnson said having Bush campaigning for Thune could work against him.

"Every time George Bush comes out here, I think it's gonna remind people that John [Thune] is part of national strategy that does not have to do with his commitment to the people of South Dakota," Johnson said.

Exemplary of the debate, out-of-state groups are already running ads that attack not the candidates but the bigger fish, Bush and Daschle.

In one ad, paid for by the economics advocacy group the Club for Growth, an announcer calls Daschle an obstructionist, a claim that has frequently been made by Republicans inside and outside the beltway.

"In this time of national emergency there's one man that stands in the way, Tom Daschle," the ad says.

But Democrats are not taking the hits lying down. On Tuesday, they released their own ad that accuses Bush of playing to special interest groups.

"You said you would change the tone in politics, Mr. President, tell the out-of-state special interests to stop the attack ads," said the ad produced by a group called Daschle Democrats.

A projected $14 million will be spent on this race, an excessive sum for a state with only 475,000 registered voters. If the spending does reach its expected sum, the race for South Dakota's Senate seat could be the most expensive campaign per capita this election, and one of the most expensive in history.