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What Dreams May Come

Following John Thune's South Dakota odyssey long into the night.

8:00 AM, Nov 6, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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AT THREE IN THE MORNING, I gave up. A rejoicing sort of giving up, you understand, as Jean Carnahan's concession speech meant the Republicans had done it--seized control of the Senate, made it work. George W. Bush has turned into a man so presidential than he can even campaign for his party without losing his presidential aura. Franklin Roosevelt was the last president who could pull off the same trick, and so it shouldn't be a surprise that this--as you've no doubt been informed 87 times so far this morning--is the first midterm election since Roosevelt that the president's party gained seats in both houses.

But, as I said, the time had come to go to bed. I couldn't wait any longer to see whether John Thune will win the Senate race in South Dakota.

South Dakota is an awkward state in which to predict an election. The eastern half the state (think: Sioux Falls, more heavily populated, more Democratic) is in the Midwestern time zone, while the western half (think: Rapid City, smaller population, more Republican) is in Mountain time. When Thune came out of the eastern counties with only 46 percent of the vote--around 11 o'clock, as it happens--I figured that was the end. The retiring Republican governor, Bill Janklow (running for the congressional seat that Thune has abandoned to run for the Senate) actually won the area around Sioux Falls. I mean, Thune, the most popular young Republican in the state, doing 5 percent worse than his own party's congressional candidate doesn't look good, does it?

As the western counties started to report, Thune began to creep up, which was to be expected, but I didn't believe it would be enough. And then, his margins started to look a little surprising. Butte County, 67 percent. Custer, 64 percent, Pennington--meaning Rapid City, the second largest vote bloc in the state--61 percent. By one in the morning, Thune was a solid 3,000 votes ahead, and I thought the time had finally come to write the John Thune victory song and go to bed.

You have to understand that we are talking about South Dakota, here. Three thousand votes is a good-sized margin on those hard plains. Besides, my Great-Uncle Joe wrote the official Mt. Rushmore song, and he lost his Senate seat by only a few hundred votes to that rat George McGovern back in 1962, and someday the family will forgive the Democrats, but not tonight. Oh, no, not tonight--because tonight the Republican John Thune wins the close one, and down to defeat goes Democrat Tim Johnson, who really wasn't much more than Tom Daschle's apple-cheeked hand puppet, anyway, and why he ever got elected in the first place is a mystery, except to anyone who remembers what a problem his first Republican opponent, Larry Pressler, had become.

Then, unfortunately, some of the skipped over counties started reporting. In Buffalo County, 80 percent voted against Thune. Sure, that's only 631 people, but it was a harbinger of the votes from the Reservations, and Todd County quickly followed with 79 percent for Johnson, and Dewey with 76 percent, and suddenly Thune's lead had dwindled to fewer than 1,000 votes. At which point I decided to go over to the Minnesota website and watch Coleman try to hold his early lead against Mondale.

That was at two. By three o'clock, Thune's last western strongholds had reported, and he was back up by 3,000 votes. Leaving little late pockets here and there, but surely not enough for Johnson to find the votes he needs. Hurray, hurray! The Republicans now have a Chafee-proof majority in the Senate! Or, rather, they would if it weren't now 3:30 in the morning and two good-sized counties hadn't reported a single precinct yet.

Don't read anything into this. I mean, yes, Davison County is the home of Mitchell--the town best known for its Corn Palace, its George McGovern, and its Democrats. And sure, Shannon County is a pretty big county on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the Dems have been voter-frauding their way into state-wide embarassment for the last month. Still. 3,000 votes is a lot to pick up.

So, at 3:30 in the morning, I make my prediction. Thune holds on to win by about 600 votes. Norm Coleman wins in Minnesota, while Mary Landrieu wins her run-off next month in Louisiana--which means the Republicans hold a two-seat edge in the Senate, and President Bush goes back to the White House, his presidential reputation untarnished and his political power much increased. Oh, and my sleepless sentences nod off, finally, down into the murmurous waters of sleep. Of sleep.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.