When he died on May 16, the New York Times miscaptioned the photograph it ran with his obituary. And then misspelled his name in the correction it ran three days later.
Jim Abdnor would have smiled, I think, or mumbled something shy. And sly. He had a strangely private sense of humor that didn’t seem to mind if no one else got the joke—which he may well have needed, looking back on his political career in South Dakota: a conservative whose single term in the U.S. Senate was bracketed by the 18 years of George McGovern that came before and the 18 years of Tom Daschle that came after. He was the thin layer of grit that managed to halt for a moment the turning of those big, slick wheels.
I was visiting in Rapid City on Election Night 1980, sitting up late with my Uncle Joe to watch the returns. Joe had held that Senate seat once, losing it to McGovern in 1962, and he had been invited out to the Republicans’ victory party. In the end, he didn’t go, deciding not to intrude on Abdnor’s moment. But there was a satisfaction Joe couldn’t help but radiate as McGovern finally went down to defeat.
A man named Ronald Reagan was also elected that night, up at the top of the Republican ticket. Which was cause for additional satisfaction in Rapid City. But the mostly forgotten Abdnor deserves some recognition now for his overwhelming victory over the man who only eight years before had been the Democrats’ nominee for president: Fifty-eight percent of the vote, Abdnor took, to McGovern’s 39 percent, despite being outspent two to one.
The election of 1980 was a Republican landslide, of course, with prominent Democratic senators getting buried across the nation, from Birch Bayh and Frank Church to John Culver and Warren Magnuson. Twelve Senate seats the Republicans picked up on Election Night, and there were several figures among the new senators from whom we would hear—for good or for ill—in the coming years: Dan Quayle, for instance. Chuck Grassley, Warren Rudman, and Al D’Amato. Arlen Specter.
“Reagan’s coattails,” the newspapers called it then, and “Reagan’s coattails” is what they’re calling it still: Nearly every obituary for Jim Abdnor casually noted that Reagan had pulled him to victory in 1980. And yet, that isn’t exactly the way things happened. We slip into a kind of historical blindness when we suppose that 1980 was the year Reagan invented modern conservatism. Even out on those Dakota plains today, many seem to have forgotten what people like Jim Abdnor knew and demonstrated: Reagan helped create the conservative coalition, but the conservative coalition helped create Reagan, as well.
Oh, Jimmy Carter also pitched in, doing his best to advance the Republican cause, and the nation was ready for some change from the long-ruling Democrats. Remember the property-tax rebellion of Proposition 13 in California? The Sagebrush Rebellion, trying to wrench away federal control of public lands in the West? The Republican victories of 1980 didn’t spring, like Minerva, full-grown from the head of Jupiter Reagan. They were nurtured to maturity by conservatives who had worked for years, on the ground, to make their politics capable of winning elections.
Conservatives such as Jim Abdnor. Such a quiet, unassuming man, a life-long bachelor whose farm in Kenne-bec (population 280) really was his home—although he sometimes taught and coached at the high school down the road in Presho (population 497). Maybe, in the end, he was too quiet and unassuming. Even though he’d served as lieutenant governor and congressman, the party heavyweights had trouble accepting a farmer with a speech impediment as one of the state’s U.S. senators.
They’d let him run in 1980 assuming he would be merely a token candidate against an unbeatable McGovern. And when his reelection rolled around in 1986, Governor Bill Janklow ran a brutal campaign against him in the Republican primary—weakening Abdnor enough that, even though he managed to scrape by in the primary, the Democrat Tom Daschle slipped past him in the general election. Apart from working to promote the careers of former staffers, including the current South Dakota senator John Thune, Abdnor never reentered politics. He slipped away at a nursing home in Sioux Falls, at age 89.
James Abdnor was never a nationally important political figure. He was universally acknowledged to be nice, but he practiced a profession where niceness is seldom a practical virtue. Even in South Dakota, his political contemporaries didn’t take him seriously. Not as seriously, anyway, as he deserved. He was who he was: a principled conservative, in season and out. What would the Reagan Revolution have been without him, and all the people like him, who finally found their voice on that Election Day in 1980?