On the first Saturday in April, Daschle visited my hometown of Madison, population 6,000, which is about an hour northwest of Sioux Falls in Lake County. The town was settled in 1870 by farmers from Wisconsin who thought it looked like their capital city. Madison is the county seat--many of the little towns which used to serve the farmers of Lake County have long since passed out of existence, along with many of the small farms. Like many South Dakota counties, one town, often the county seat, is emerging as the only sizeable non-rural area of the county. For Lake County, that town is Madison.
Lake County is still majority Republican (55%-45%), but Democratic Senate candidates have done well here in recent years, which wasn't always the case. Madison is the hometown of Senator Karl E. Mundt, who served in Congress for 34 years. He's the only SD Senator to be elected to a fourth term (both George McGovern and Larry Pressler were defeated running for number four), which may not bode well for Daschle's try at number four. At this point, it's safe to call Lake County a swing county which deserves attention from analysts. Thune lost here in 2002 by 1,100 votes--if he had prevailed in Lake County, he would be a Senator. The Republicans in Lake County, it should be noted, now have a tremendously energetic county chair that they didn't have two years ago when the Lake County ground operation was a problem.
Senator Karl E. Mundt of Madison, SD.
The Daschle event in Madison was held at the new Community Center (just North of the Karl E. Mundt library) and featured a lunch of free BBQs, chips, and lemonade. About 350 people turned out, most of them older voters. Even though there's a small college in Madison, Dakota State University, no college students were in evidence. Jon Hunter, the editor of the only remaining independent daily newspaper in the state, the Madison Daily Leader, didn't seem to be there (the Hunter family used to be big supporters of Karl Mundt), although Mayor Royce Heuners, the father of one of my classmates, was there. Daschle dashed in several minutes late and gave a 15-minute stump speech. He started by talking about the responsibility of serving as a Senate leader and using LBJ’s former desk (and said Mike Mansfield was his hero) and then launched into the standard, boilerplate litany: job losses to India and China (too many), ethanol (it's important), the cost of health insurance (it's too much), and the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly (they're too high). It was uninspired and flat. And these stock issues are anything but guarantees for Daschle--many recognize that he fumbled the ethanol bill and President Bush worked with the AARP to pass a prescription drug bill in December.
Daschle in Madison (in the lower left, next to the preacher Ben Zimmerman in the headphones, is Walt Shaeffer, who grew up with my Dad near Winfred--their high school is now used to keep bees and make honey).
The problem for Daschle, of course, is that his basic stump speech issues won't necessarily be the major issues in the campaign. Instead, major issues will include Daschle's opposition to tax cuts, tort reform (as his stop in Renner earlier in the day indicated--even though he told a small businessman he thinks doctors are paying "way too much" for med-mal insurance, in February he killed the Republican med-mal tort reform bill--more here), Bush's judges (Daschle's double-standards on judges are getting absurd, as this report from today notes), the gay marriage amendment (already splitting SD Democrats), and the President in general and his support for gun control and abortion. Moreover, some voters won't be impressed with Daschle's positions in 2004 compared to 1986, when he first was elected to the Senate (his last contested election--a long time ago), and his fancy mansion in DC. And then there's this major problem--also known as the "family business." People in Madison don't think much of people who are "too big for their britches," as the saying used to go. Daschle also has a Ralph Nader problem, as of last week, in Indian Country, while Thune is picking up Indian support. And half of South Dakotans think Daschle puts the agenda of the national Democratic party ahead of theirs. Some former Daschle staffers even think he can't be Democratic leader and run in a Red State like South Dakota.
Daschle did tell one joke, which was interesting. A child told Daschle that he likes him but that his Dad gets irate whenever he sees Daschle's ads on TV, which means the Dad gets mad a lot. Daschle has spent millions on TV ads in South Dakota (Roll Call deemed it a "spending spree") since last summer (Thune hasn't even started to advertise yet). Daschle presumably used the joke to lighten the mood--perhaps he can tell people are tired of his ads. Polls last summer indicated and the editor of the Watertown Public Opinion editorialized that more Daschle ads were a mistake. Speaking of Watertown (about 50 miles North of Madison), a native son, John Hinderaker of Powerline, is home this weekend and also thinks Daschle is in trouble:
The conventional wisdom here was that Daschle was in trouble, even before [third party candidate] Tim Giago announced that he will run in the general election as an independent. Daschle has been inundating local television stations with ads; they never mention his positions on any issues, but relate exclusively to constituent service. Polls have consistently indicated that notwithstanding the millions of dollars he has spent (while Thune has done nothing), Daschle's lead is stuck at around three to five points.
There's some debate, Hindrocket, that Daschle is actually slipping in the polls. Whether stasis or minor slippage, it's still a nightmare for Daschle. His biggest weapon--his massive warchest for TV ads--could be neutralized. And he doesn't have many other weapons. Hindrocket also mentioned that Daschle doesn't discuss issues in his ads. Issues seem to be a problem for Daschle, which is why he won't take public questions, which some Madison residents found a bit odd.
Besides Madison, Lake County is largely rural and agricultural. The other small towns in the county are closely tied to Corn Belt economics. Farmers used to provide the core of McGovern's old winning formula. McGovern did the unlikely and got elected to Congress in the 1950s (in 1952, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state legislature 108-2) by bashing Eisenhower's farm policy. This year, in contrast, corn prices are strong. Here's a shot of the round barn at my friend Brian Hodne's place West of Madison near the farms where my parents grew up:
Finally, take note below of DVT's grade school in Madison, St. Thomas Aquinas. It is a wonderful little school, but apparently there aren't many nuns there anymore. But there still is an active and sizeable Catholic Church in Madison. One wonders what these problems will mean for Daschle with those voters. Along these lines, it's worth noting the big sign put up by Lake County Right to Life on the drive into town.
In short, at this point, Daschle's re-election prospects don't look very good. His strategy is to focus on a few bread and butter issues like health care costs, completely avoid discussing social issues, tax cuts, and terrorism, and run millions of dollars worth of warm and fuzzy ads (some of which are beyond sappy), flooding the zone, touting his power and access to government largesse. There's not much evidence that it is working. It seems too scripted. And the refusal to take public questions seems paranoid (which Daschle concedes he is: "Only the paranoid survive"). As the campaign unfolds, Thune will also have enormous time advantages--he can campaign constantly while Daschle is forced to be in DC organizing the next filabuster. South Dakota is a very small state and voter contact is extremely important and ads, which Daschle planned to use as a proxy for lots of home-state visits, don't seem to be moving any numbers. It almost seems like a form of contemporary Plains populism--defying the willful image manipulation of expensive ad makers. Hope to have more reports from the field in the future.