Tom Daschle is losing his lead over Republican challenger John Thune in the South Dakota Senate race with less than a month to go before the General Election. Thune, a former congressman, either holds a 50-48 or trails by a 49-47 margin, depending upon which poll you believe in.
That’s a dramatic change from just six months ago, when the Senate Minority Leader held a 49-43 advantage. With every poll reporting the race to be within the realm of error, it is now an official dead heat — likely to be a post-election morning squeaker.
The biggest story of all, though, is why Milquetoast has lost so much ground. To be honest, it’s because he’s adopted the French military tactic of fighting the good fight (for the last war). He’s on the schnide because he’s still trying to win over South Dakota using his 1986 playbook.
Throughout much of the 1980s, Milquetoast campaigned for his House seat by making himself out to be a common man who knew the issues that were important to South Dakotans. He never mentioned he was a Democrat and always spoke of what he liked about his home state. When he ran for his first term in the Senate, he went with what worked.
And worked, it did. Milquetoast won his first term in 1986; then six years later, he rode the Bill Clinton wave to grab 65 percent of the vote. In 1998, he grabbed 62 percent of the vote; all this in a state that probably has never voted for a democrat presidential candidate in its entire history.
Here’s how it worked: Milquetoast ran localized door-to-door campaigns, emphasizing his personality and likeability, instead of the substantive issues. When forced to take a stand, he always made sure he opposed abortion (but still believed in a woman’s right to choose), touted a balanced-budget amendment, supported tax cuts and focused heavily on agricultural issues.
The message to the voters was that Milquetoast was one frugal son-of-a-gun, but instead of simply saying “Tom is a fiscal conservative,” the ads showed him running around in a beat-up, smoke-belching Pontiac. And, for the most part, the gimmick worked. There wasn’t any BMW in Tom’s garage because he was an ordinary guy.
Based on the assumption, perpetuated by the likes of Denise Ross of the Rapid City Journal, that voters don’t want to know the bad things about their candidates, the Milquetoast camp has stuck to its tried and true plan of attack. Reading from the same, well-worn pages that got him to Washington in the first place, they have run ads that continue to portray him as a non-partisan do-gooder. Never mind the fact that he’s the Senate Minority Leader, the de facto head of the Democratic Party.
That plan has become a recipe for disaster that will likely take Stephanie Herseth down, too. Thune concluded the opposite about campaign ads; he believed that voters were not turned off by negatives, but by prolonged campaigns that inundate voters with negative ads. So, he waited and entered the campaign in January, then waited to run ads until mid-July.
In the meantime, Milquetoast was forced, for the first time in his career, to contend with the issues. Democrats killed the ethanol bill last year with a filibuster and the Minority Leader did nothing to stop it. Farmers will likely want to know why he wasn’t a “strong, independent voice for South Dakotans” back then.
Also, as leader of the party, Milquetoast has had to stump for fellow Democrats, usually praising them for their liberal agendas. That won’t sit well with non-partisan South Dakotans. Neither will his $3 million D.C. mansion, nor the lucrative lobbying that Mrs. Milquetoast has been doing on behalf of liberal issues in our nation’s capital.
Instead, Milquetoast’s campaign advisers are telling him to continue his media barrage of “nice” ads. In one, he is holding a shotgun, talking about how much he loves the Second Amendment and hunting. In another, he talks about how he’s strong on defense and how he pledges to defend Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Milquetoast comes off sounding more like a Republican than a Democrat in each and every one. I wonder how well that will sit with the liberal wing of the party? Not well, I would imagine; probably about as poorly as his true liberal roots are sitting with South Dakota voters.
If he wins re-election, Milquetoast is finished as leader of the party. If he loses, he’s finished as a politician in South Dakota. Either way, he’s just plain toast and conservatives win big.
As a little aside, the last time a sitting Senate leader was unseated by a challenger was in 1952. Majority Leader Ernest McFarland, an Arizona democrat, lost despite a positive image within his home state when he failed to adjust his campaign tactics to meet the new political landscape brought on by the Cold War.
McFarland, interestingly enough, lost to some guy named Barry Goldwater (you might have heard of him), a 43-year-old businessman from Phoenix. For the record, John Thune recently turned 43.