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. On his side, Johnson has campaigned steadily and professionally. Elected in 1996 mainly because the state couldn't bring itself to tolerate Larry Pressler's peculiarities anymore, Johnson has managed to turn his invisibility into an advantage. "This isn't a vote for prom king," he tells audiences. It's about keeping Tom Daschle the majority leader. Never was a candidate so self-effacing. The Johnson campaign website lists item after item with the candidate's name second: "Daschle, Johnson Urge Drought Aid," "Daschle, Johnson Meet With Students," "Daschle, Johnson Discuss Issues"--over and over, until you think the candidate's name is Daschle Johnson. Republicans, for their part, are still suffering from ancient, dynastic wounds. The party is missing nearly an entire generation of candidates--the fortysomethings who ought to have been groomed for consequential office. The 1993 death in a plane crash of Governor George S. Mickelson deprived the party of its natural leader, which allowed such misadventures as this June's gubernatorial primary, in which the state attorney general and a wealthy Republican businessman spent more than $4 million slanging each other so grossly that voters turned away in disgust and chose instead a little-known state senator named Mike Rounds as the Republican nominee. Rounds may well win the general election solely on his reputation as the nice guy who didn't run attack ads against fellow Republicans. And then there's the long and ambiguous legacy of William Janklow, the wild card of South Dakota politics. At the close of his first two terms as governor, in 1986, Janklow decided to run for Senate--ignoring the fact that the senator up for reelection that year was already a Republican, James Abdnor, the GOP hero who had finally driven out McGovern in the previous election. Though he survived Janklow's challenge in the primary, Abdnor was damaged enough to lose the general election to a young congressman named Tom Daschle. After Mickelson's death, Janklow returned to the governor's mansion for two more terms with the 1994 election. Now 63 and term-limited once again, Janklow was casting about for something to do when, early last spring, Larry Pressler began running for Thune's soon-to-be-vacant congressional seat. That proved too much for the retiring governor, so the Republican congressional primary this year featured Janklow vs. Pressler, like dinosaurs chasing off the young talent that will eventually have to take on Daschle's Democratic machine. In the midst of all this, a great deal of pressure from the White House--engineered through Janklow's friendship with George Bush Sr.--persuaded Thune to abandon his planned run to replace Janklow as governor and take on Johnson for the Senate instead. It wasn't necessarily a bad move. If the race were simply a judgment between Thune and Johnson, Thune would win handily. And if the race were really a proxy for Bush against Daschle, Thune would also have a good chance. But a combination of Democratic skill and Republican blunders has made the election a choice between Thune and Daschle, the worst possible matchup in the state. While Johnson has successfully pasted Daschle's picture over his own, Thune has been distanced from Bush. Against Johnson's argument that Daschle's Senate majority leadership brings great things to the state, Thune insists that South Dakota needs a well-connected Republican to balance things in Washington. You wouldn't know it from the president's recent trip to South Dakota, where Bush used the occasion to campaign against drought relief in the state most solidly in favor of it. Daschle meanwhile ran back to Washington and added Johnson's name as cosponsor to a $5 billion drought-relief amendment. "I have the president's phone number on my speed dial," Thune tells audiences. But what difference does that make, if South Dakotans think nobody's answering? The attempts by Johnson and some out-of-state-groups to raise environmental concerns have mostly backfired, thanks to the widely held perception that ill-considered preservationist measures over the last 20 years have contributed to the forest fires in the Black Hills. But the failure of cloning to break out as a key issue means that Thune has no pressing pro-life topic with which to pin Johnson. Massive registration drives by the Democrats on the reservations are another worry for Republicans, as 9 percent of the state's population are Native Americans, and larger-than-usual turnouts on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations could easily swing a close race to the Democrats. Add it all up, and John Thune is in trouble--and with him, the Republicans' hope of regaining control of the Senate. A serious congressional debate over invading Iraq may help him, in the way foreign-policy and military topics always help Republicans in states like South Dakota. But it will be bitter for Thune if he loses, for he could have floated almost uncontested into the governorship. And it will be doubly bitter for the party that pressured its most-popular young South Dakotan to enter the race for Senate. Thinking to hand Tom Daschle a defeat at home, the Republicans now risk another generation in the wilderness. J. Bottum, the Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard, is a native of Pierre, South Dakota.
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