Magazine article The American Prospect

Revolt on the Ranch: South Dakota Republicans May Keep the Senate Democratic. (Gazette)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Revolt on the Ranch: South Dakota Republicans May Keep the Senate Democratic. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

IN EARLY OCTOBER, AS THE IRAQ debate heated up in Washington, U.S. Rep. and Senate hopeful John Thune (R-S.D.) began airing a campaign ad on western South Dakota television stations. The 30-second spot featured images of Saddam Hussein while an announcer assailed opponent Tim Johnson, the incumbent Democratic senator, for voting against missile-defense implementation. Opposing missile defense, the ad implied, could land Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in your backyard.

Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were relying on Iraq to carry them to victory, but this strategy no longer seems as certain. And attacking Johnson, who voted for the Iraq resolution and who is the only sitting senator whose son served in Afghanistan, has not proven particularly effective. As one cowboy-hat-wearing rancher from a county decorated with Thune signs says, the missile-defense spot was "chickenshit advertising." Thune himself acknowledges, "People are focusing on pocketbook issues as well as homeland-security issues." But at a series of recent Johnson and Thune campaign stops, the overwhelming majority of voters in South Dakota, which ranks 49th in the nation in average annual pay, seemed far more concerned with basic subsistence than the prospect of war.

South Dakota's heavily agricultural economy is reeling from the worst drought in recent memory. Some livestock ranchers, who (unlike farmers) received little aid from the farm bill, have been forced out of business. On Sept. 10, Johnson and fellow South Dakotan (and Senate Majority Leader) Tom Daschle led a 79-to-16 majority in pushing through a $6 billion drought-relief amendment to a Department of the Interior appropriations bill, which is now stalled over partisan disagreement. While Thune has managed to secure some assistance through President George W. Bush and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, he has not been successful in pushing through more comprehensive drought relief in the House in the face of a likely presidential veto. According to rancher Kenny Fox, an undecided voter, the current relief amounts to $18 per cow and $23 total in cattle feed, which will only last about two months. "Most of us live below the poverty line. It's not enough. It's kind of a Band-Aid approach," says Fox.

When President Bush appeared at Mount Rushmore, near the epicenter of the drought, he failed to deliver the disaster relief that many ranchers had hoped for. "We're one of the states that helped [Bush] get elected," says Fox. "I do support him on most things but I'm surprised and disappointed on this." And though South Dakota supported Bush as enthusiastically as Texas in 2000, many diehard Republicans who have never pulled the lever for a Democrat are considering voting for Johnson due to his position on drought relief, his stand against big meat-packing companies, and his votes on fast track and other trade issues affecting the agricultural sector. The support of this unlikely constituency just might tip the balance for Johnson on Nov. 5.

SOUTH DAKOTA POLITICS SEEM illogical at first glance. The sole House member from the state, Thune was elected by the same statewide constituency that put Johnson and Daschle in office. (In 1996, Johnson, then a House member, ousted GOP Sen. Larry Pressler.) According to veteran political reporter Dave Kranz of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, "This state is not all that Republican when you cut through it. It's more of a populist state."

Much has been made of Daschle's powerful leadership position and Johnson's coveted Senate Appropriations Committee seat. The national media have depicted the South Dakota Senate race as a proxy war between Bush and Daschle, and the president and majority leader are certain to enter the fray more visibly in the campaign's final days. It was Bush who persuaded Thune to drop his bid for governor and run for Senate in an effort to strip Daschle of control. …

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