Thursday, April 22, 2004

Daschle's chances 

Good news for Tom Daschle's reelection campaign. Indian activist Tim Giago, an independent candidate in the race, has withdrawn and endorsed Daschle. It seems that Daschle and Giago met over the weekend and ironed out their differences. Native Americans, who make up almost 10% of South Dakota's population, traditionally vote strongly Democratic, but Giago's candidacy threatened to undercut Daschle's support on the reservations. While it's not clear exactly what conditions Daschle agreed to, he may have softened his position on the Black Hills land dispute. The federal government illegally took possession of Sioux land in 1877, initiating a century-long conflict over the ownership of the Black Hills. In 1980, the Supreme Court awarded $105 million to the Sioux in compensation, but the tribes refused the settlement, arguing that the land was never for sale. In the past, Daschle has consistently ignored the tribes' claim to the land, angering one of his core constituencies.

Giago's withdrawal and endorsement are definitely a plus, but Daschle is still looking extremely vulnerable. His opponent, former Rep. John Thune, lost to incumbent Senator Tim Johnson in 2002 by a razor-thin margin of 524 votes. While Daschle's position as Senate Minority Leader makes him a stronger candidate than Johnson, there is one big difference between 2004 and 2002: Bush will be running at the top of the ticket. Four years ago, Bush won South Dakota by a margin of 22%. In order for Daschle to win reelection, some 22% of South Dakota voters have to break party lines, voting for Bush at the top of the ticket and Daschle on the next line. That's a huge number of split tickets. The Bush campaign will surely try to frame a vote for Daschle as inconsistent with a vote for the President. South Dakota residents will be hearing a lot of rhetoric about Daschle's "obstructionism" in the coming months. Given Daschle's anemic polling numbers, below 50% and only a few points ahead of Thune, his position is very tenuous. I wouldn't put his chances at much higher than 50%.

If Daschle loses, it would be a huge symbolic defeat for the Democratic party. On the other hand, it's time we had a leader in the Senate who doesn't have to sell out Democratic values to get reelected. Having a safe seat ought to be a requirement for a Congressional leadership position.

For the true die-hard political junkies, here's a whole blog devoted to the Daschle/Thune race.
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