The Magazine

GOP Malpractice in South Dakota?

With a good candidate in a pro-Bush state, Republicans still may blow it.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By J. BOTTUM
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ONCE AT A PARTY here in Washington, I challenged a well-known political reporter--a man who makes his living covering the ins and outs of America's elections--to name the junior senator from South Dakota. After a moment's fruitless effort, he quipped, "South Dakota doesn't actually have two senators. Tom Daschle just gets to vote twice."

That's a little unfair to Tim Johnson. Sure, he jumps when Daschle snaps his fingers. In fact, he jumps when he thinks Daschle might snap his fingers. But what's a first-term senator supposed to do as second fiddle to the Senate majority leader--a man who controls the big national donors, the party machinery in South Dakota, and the political plums in Washington? While Daschle contemplates a run for the presidency, Johnson's job is to fill a Democratic chair in the Senate and vote the way he's told to vote, whether he likes it or not.

Mostly, he seems to like it. He did grumble a little about the death tax. South Dakotans hate inheritance taxes, and Johnson promised he would vote to abolish them. But when the vote came up in the Senate this summer, Johnson was a good soldier and followed his pro-tax orders. Daschle's manipulation of the Senate this spring to prevent a vote on cloning may have spared Johnson another occasion to be whipped back into the national party's line.

But that's it. Only twice in the last six years has Tim Johnson even talked a position different from Daschle's. Of course, first-term senators from what Washington considers minor states rarely get much chance to show what they can do, but Johnson was a congressman for 10 years before his election to the Senate, and he's still left an astonishingly slight impression, passing through the Capitol over the last 16 years like a small and diffident ghost, as forgettable as his name.

Meanwhile, in his reelection bid, Johnson is up against John Thune, the hottest young Republican to come out of South Dakota since the days when George McGovern's Democrats held a stranglehold on the state, and mad Larry Pressler seemed the fresh, young thing who could beat them. Thune's only handicap may be geography. More than two-thirds of South Dakotans live east of the Missouri, but Thune is from Murdo--one of those West River county seats with an elevation three times its population, a town known mostly for the billboards that invite tourists to pull off the highway and see such roadside attractions as "The Dukes of Hazzard"'s stunt-car. Hardly anyone ever does.

In every other way, the 41-year-old Thune has the whole package. He's a Republican in a state that George Bush took from Al Gore by 22 percentage points. He's already won statewide office--with a population of 750,000, the state has only one congressional district, and Thune's finishing his third term as South Dakota's sole congressman. As tall, thin men often do in the years between youth and middle age, he's been looking stretched recently, the cords on his neck standing out in strain and the stress lines on his face unable to decide whether they're going to become crinkles or crags. But he's still a towering, good-looking figure, and his opponent--well, the best one can say is that Johnson plays in a different league.

On paper, this election shouldn't be close. At this point in the campaign, Thune should have an overwhelming lead and be out helping Republican candidates in other races (particularly the race to fill his vacated congressional seat, which pits the over-familiar four-term Republican governor William Janklow against Stephanie Herseth, a young Democratic lawyer so deadly cute that no one dares say anything negative about her). Instead, the Senate race is--in the most generous interpretation of the polls--neck and neck, with Johnson perhaps poised to pull away.

Part of the explanation is bad luck, part is bad history, but most of it is just bad politics--concocted everywhere from strategy meetings at the White House to afternoon teas with local Republican women's groups. In a crucial moment in the midterm elections, with control of the Senate as the prize and a weak Democratic incumbent ready to be picked off, South Dakota--a state that hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1974, a state the Republican presidential candidate has carried in 13 of the past 14 elections--could easily have its entire delegation to Washington consist of Democrats.