“April is the cruellest month.” T.S. Eliot (1922)
On April 1st at 10:00 PM, KSFY television in Sioux Falls revealed the results of a new poll on the Senate race. The poll showed that 48% of respondents supported Daschle and 43% supported Thune. After spending millions of dollars on advertising since the summer of 2003, the poll showed that Daschle had not improved his numbers a lick. It could be argued that Daschle actually slipped in the polls since an Argus Leader poll in February had shown Daschle to be leading 50%-43%. Eugene Volokh and some other professors debated whether this was a “statistically significant” drop or not. Whatever the case, since Thune had not (and still has not) spent dime-one on ads, the numbers weren't good for Daschle.
The odd aspect of the poll story was how bad the Daschle spin was. The Daschle camp's reaction was to emphasize that it was a bad sign for Thune because he had run millions of dollars worth of ads in 2002 and so his support should have been higher. The fact that millions of ads were run against him in 2002 or the fact that Daschle had already run millions in ads in 2003 and 2004 to boost his numbers didn’t interfere with their spin. The Daschle camp also speculated that since Thune was not running ads he was having money problems, which was absurd. The Thune camp raised $2.2 million dollars in the first three months of 2004, the highest of any challenger in the nation, and had only spent $300,000.
The Daschle camp may have been off their game because of the third party threat of Tim Giago, who Daschle called the “Indian Ralph Nader,” which caused considerable buzz in early April. At a meeting in Rapid City in late April, however, Giago agreed to leave the race. In addition to securing a meeting with tribal leaders in August, the Washington Post reported that Giago “wanted Daschle to open dialogue on returning the sacred Black Hills to the tribes of the Sioux Nation, and to help remedy the lack of economic opportunities on the state's reservations, the poorest in the country. Giago had expressed distress that Daschle did not seem open to discussing the Black Hills.” The Wall Street Journal also reported that Giago had previously “said Mr. Daschle had spent 26 years in Congress ignoring pleas by Indian tribes to return the famous Black Hills to the Sioux Nation.” Giago’s withdrawal was at least a temporary success for Daschle, but a week later another candidate, Bob Newland, who had run for Attorney General in 2002 and received more than 3% of the vote, decided to run as an independent. Newland planned to emphasize Indian issues and the issue he had championed in 2002, industrial hemp. To the extent the Newland candidacy matters, most believe it will hurt Daschle. But Daschle did get Giago out of the race, which is probably the best news Daschle received in April.
Other polls in April were not encouraging. One indicated that 52% of South Dakotans favored an outright ban on abortion. Daschle, on the other hand, is a NARAL spokesman. Another poll showed that 63% of South Dakotans favored the President's Constitutional amendment defining of marriage. Daschle opposes such an amendment.
In early April, Daschle made a campaign trip to Madison, DVT's hometown, and is now running radio ads there claiming credit for acquiring funds for the local university. It turns out, however, that Daschle voted against the measure he's taking credit for! The same problem, this time with regard to a local technical school in Mitchell, was reported by the local newspaper in Mitchell. During the Madison event, it should be noted, Daschle refused to take public questions, which has become his practice when in the state (and a notably odd practice in a small, rural, communitarian state).
When Daschle's events aren't completely controlled and scripted, bad things can happen. For example, on the morning of Daschle’s visit to Madison, he also stopped in Renner for a meeting with some small business owners to discuss the high cost of health insurance. One man told Daschle he thought health care costs were driven by the high cost of medical malpractice insurance. Daschle agreed and said such costs were “way too high.” Although the comment was buried in a story that was also buried, it did make it into the Sunday Argus Leader. What was not mentioned, however, was the huge pile of money that Daschle had taken from trial lawyers—a quarter of a million dollars in recent years—and his many efforts to block Republican proposals for tort reform. In fact, the following week Daschle returned to Washington and filibustered a medical malpractice tort reform bill in the Senate. It was a classic example of Daschle being on both sides of an issue. Tonight, Daschle is going to a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and accepting money and an award from the New York Trial Lawyers Association. According to Crain’s Insider, Daschle is “being honored for his work in opposing tort reform” and political strategist James Carville is to serve as the keynote speaker.
April also indicated that Daschle's position in the Senate, instead of helping his re-election, is becoming a burden (more here). Senator Kennedy said he had never seen the institution “so dysfunctional.” After the failure of a welfare reform bill in the Senate, Morton Kondracke of Roll Call lamented the “rancid partisanship rife in all American politics” and reported that “[s]ome moderate Democratic Senators [were] privately furious with Kennedy, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and other hard-liners.” Daschle also continued his opposition to allowing measures to go to conference committees. In early April he also announced that all Presidential nominees would be blocked because he opposed the President’s two recess appointments. The New York Post noted that Daschle had strongly defended recess appointments during the Clinton Presidency, however. Also, in contrast to his opposition to allowing confirmation votes on Bush judges, in 1999, when President Clinton was in office, Daschle said “I find it simply baffling that a Senator would vote against even voting on a judicial nomination.” For some Democrats, despite Daschle's rigid partisanship, it was not enough. Rumors circulated about dumping Daschle as leader. Senator Dodd was also making noises about wanting to be leader (more here).
During the last week of April, Robert Novak reported that “Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist [was] being urged by colleagues to threaten to close down the Senate for the rest of the year unless Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle ends his disruptive tactics.” The national press also began buzzing about Senator Frist’s decision to visit South Dakota, which they viewed as a sign of the fevered partisanship of the Senate. The New York Times reported that Daschle was “annoyed.” The Senate historian told Roll Call that he had never heard of one leader campaigning in the other leader’s backyard. Then again, they also noted that “Daschle [had] been the single biggest thorn in Frist’s legislative side, leading Democratic filibusters throughout the 108th Congress on numerous bills and nominations.” When Senator Frist sent out a fundraising letter saying that if a person was going to donate to one Senate race in 2004, it should be the Daschle-Thune race, the Daschle camp complained even more loudly.
Throughout the month of April, several national stories also appeared about John Kerry and his problems with the Catholic church and they often mentioned Daschle’s conflict with the Bishop of Sioux Falls. Toward the end of April, the Vatican announced that Catholic politicians who were pro-choice should not be given communion, a move that generated additional stories. The stories about Kerry and the Catholic church, which all mentioned Daschle’s conflict with the church, received a lot of attention from The New York Times, the Washington Post, Roll Call, The Hill, The Boston Globe, Time, and the Washington Times. Many of the stories were long, sophisticated, and analytical. No such stories appeared in the Argus Leader. Despite the Argus filter, some local Catholics talked about the issue. The Washington Post also reported that Raymond Flynn, a former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997, had said that the Catholic church was coming under “tremendous pressure from ordinary Catholics” to “do something about politicians who are exploiting their Catholic credentials and trying to ingratiate themselves with Catholic voters . . . when their voting record is completely inconsistent with the principles of the Catholic Church.”
In late April, the Club for Growth began running ads criticizing Daschle for opposing the repeal of the estate tax. More cutting, perhaps, were ads run by the Coalition for the Future American Worker, criticizing a major immigration bill that Daschle had introduced in Congress. The immigration ad said that Daschle’s legislation would allow large-scale amnesty for immigrants, who would allegedly take American jobs, and also make them eligible for Social Security. The Daschle campaign made the heavy-handed decision to send letters from its lawyers to South Dakota TV stations demanding the immigration ad be pulled. The manager of KELO-Land, the state’s most widely-viewed station, said the “spots are accurate even if they’re not showing both points of view. This is a point of view, rather than an ad meant to investigate both sides of the issue.” After the TV stations refused Daschle’s request to prohibit the broadcasting of the ads, the Daschle campaign released a new TV commercial featuring people saying “I don’t like these negative ads attacking Tom Daschle. We don’t need outside groups coming in telling us lies about Tom.” The Daschle campaign also began a massive phone-calling campaign from a phone bank in Florida in which a woman, purportedly a Republican, said “I have seen a number of negative television ads and a news story where John Thune says its okay for outside groups to run these ads…It’s time to send a message that we won’t stand for it any more. If you agree, call John Thune’s office…and ask him to stop his friends from polluting our airwaves.”
The stunt backfired on Daschle. First, Thune had still not run any ads, so many people didn’t understand why he was being attacked. Second, Thune had no control over outside groups running ads. Third, the accusations made by the Daschle campaign during the phone bank calls were illegal because Daschle’s involvement and sponsorship wasn’t disclosed, as required by federal election law. KELO-Land news reported that “Senator Tom Daschle's re-election campaign paid for an undisclosed number of telephone ads blaming John Thune's campaign for an increase in negative advertising. But that's only part of the story. It turns out Daschle's ads violate a new federal election law.” In the process of trying to smear Thune for making "negative attacks," Daschle was exposed state-wide for breaking the law.
On April 29th, Daschle made another half-hearted attempt to push through the ethanol bill by attaching it to an internet tax bill. It was a desperate move and the cloture vote failed 41-58. Ethanol was dead. Almost a year before, Daschle had started running television ads essentially saying that he had passed the ethanol bill and ethanol continued to be a stock issue in his stump speeches and campaign literature. In November 2003, Daschle was at the one-yard line and only needed 2 Democratic votes to pass the bill which the House had already passed and the White House was willing to sign. Daschle refused to work for passage and went to sign copies of his book. All his talk in the intervening months about passing an ethanol bill in "late March" was filler. Many South Dakotans were beginning to realize that Daschle's partisanship had cost them the ethanol bill they supported.
Finally, Daschle's biggest strategic assets in South Dakota, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and its main political reporter Dave Kranz, came in for some withering criticism from internet bloggers after a particularly horrible bit of pro-Daschle bias. Andrew Sullivan called Kranz "Daschle's best buddy." Powerline called Kranz a "Democratic shill." Instapundit said Kranz was "in bed with" Daschle and Ryne McClaren called it "Kranzgate." Bloggers were attempting to explain how Argus bias was distorting the democratic process. The editor of the Argus, Randell Beck, responded with what Instapundit called a "hissy fit" and Andrew Sullivan simply said: "An Editor Loses It." While the Argus hasn't changed its ways, many South Dakotans are now aware of its proclivities.
April, in short, was not kind to Daschle. He has arguably slipped in the polls or, at the very least, has not been able to increase his margin-of-error lead over Thune despite what Roll Call terms a "spending spree" on advertising. Issue-specific polls also indicate trouble for Daschle. Instead of running ads that annoy voters, Thune spent the month of April traveling the state and talking with voters while Daschle was mostly stuck in Washington blocking action in the Senate, which has seized up in partisan gridlock. The Daschle campaign’s attempt to blame Thune for “negative” third party ads flopped and Daschle had to admit to making annoying telemarketing calls to voters and to breaking the campaign finance laws. His local ads are also being questioned for their veracity in towns like Mitchell and Madison. Daschle also failed on ethanol due to partisan wrangling and the key to his message delivery system in the state, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, had its bias exposed. April is indeed the cruellest month. For Daschle, that is.