TCS Daily

Daschle May Lose -- And Republicans May Regret It

By William J. Stuntz - November 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Bush and Kerry aside, the most important name on the ballot on Tuesday is Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota who is locked in a tight race with John Thune. Daschle has led in most polls, though by no more than a couple of points. The conventional wisdom is that, come January, Thune will be looking for a Cabinet slot and Senate Democrats won't be looking for a new leader.

I'm betting the conventional wisdom is wrong. History says Thune wins this race. Here's why.

Daschle has won three Senate elections. Two have been in off-years, when no presidential candidates cluttered the ballot. Winning South Dakota isn't easy for a Democrat in any year, but Daschle has had very fortunate political timing. He first won his seat in 1986: the year when Democrats took back the Senate after six years of Reaganite Republican majorities. Six years later, Daschle ran for reelection while Bill Clinton -- with an assist from Ross Perot -- was beating the first President Bush. Bush won South Dakota that year, but with only 41 percent of the vote: a coat with no tails. Daschle cruised to an easy victory.

Six years after that, Daschle got to defend his seat in yet another Democratic year: 1998, the year of Ken Starr and the blue dress, when voters around the country punished Republican candidates for their zeal to take Bill Clinton down over a sex scandal. Again he cruised to an easy reelection.

This year, Daschle has a lot harder row to hoe (do they hoe rows in South Dakota?). Even if John Kerry wins on Tuesday, George W. Bush will get at least 60 percent in South Dakota -- that was his percentage last time, when Al Gore was the Democratic nominee. Gore grew up in a Washington, D.C. hotel, but with a lot of photogenic visits to a Tennessee farm his family owned. Kerry is New England head to toe, save for his odd inability to identify Red Sox players by name. Assuming Tennessee "farmers" do better in the Farm Belt than Massachusetts sports ignoramuses, Bush may hit 65%. Daschle will have to win the votes of at least one-fifth and maybe one-quarter of Bush's voters. Perhaps he will do so. But he has never had to climb a mountain half so high before.

The historical precedents are not comforting. Twenty-four years ago, the last nationally famous South Dakota Democrat tried to climb the same mountain. He didn't make it. Like Daschle, George McGovern was first elected in a Democratic off-year: 1962. John F. Kennedy was President, and the Democrats picked up seats in both Houses, the first time since FDR an incumbent party had done so well. He easily won a second term in 1968, while Richard Nixon was winning the White House. Nixon carried South Dakota but with only 53 percent; McGovern didn't have huge coattails to fight. He won his third term in 1974, when Watergate cut a swath through Republicans across the country.

McGovern's luck ran out in 1980 -- his fourth election, like Daschle's this year -- when Ronald Reagan carried South Dakota with 61 percent of the vote. Reagan's coattails might not have been enough had McGovern been just another farm-state Democrat, a Byron Dorgan or Tim Johnson. Those Democrats win elections in Republican states by running every six years as quasi-Republicans. (Republicans in Democratic states do the same thing: Take a look at George Pataki's state budgets in New York.) But McGovern couldn't easily do that; he was too identified with the national Democratic party, having been its nominee for President in 1972. Daschle hasn't run for President, but he too finds it hard to distance himself from the party he leads on Capitol Hill.

McGovern isn't the only historical analogy. Fifty-two years ago, another Senate leader faced a tough reelection challenge while fighting large presidential coattails. He lost. Ernest McFarland is not a name that has gone down in history, but he was a very popular politician in his home state of Arizona, serving two terms in the Senate and two as Governor. In 1952, McFarland was the Senate's Democratic leader, like Daschle today. Dwight Eisenhower was running for President that year; he carried Arizona by 17 points. Ike's coattails were enough to give McFarland's Republican opponent, who has gone down in history -- his name is Barry Goldwater -- a narrow win. If the past is any guide, Daschle should start thumbing through the want-ads under "lobbyists."

Of course, every four years, presidential candidates -- usually both of them -- carry some states by twenty points or more, and it's not that strange to find members of the opposite party winning governorships and Senate seats in those same states. But that result will be less common this year than most, for a reason that applies to a lot more Democrats than Daschle: More than any President since Harry Truman, George W. Bush identifies with his party. No vague, non-partisan happy-talk campaign for him. Today, it's not morning in America; it's high noon -- and Bush lets everyone know which side he's on. If ever there were a presidential candidate who pushes his voters to vote the party ticket, Bush is it. It can't be good news for the Democrats that nearly all the tight Senate races this year (some of them may not turn out to be so tight) are in states Bush will win comfortably: South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska, probably North Carolina and Colorado too. And definitely South Dakota. If this is a party-vote year, Senate Republicans should have a good night on Tuesday. Even if the President has a bad one.

Daschle's loss, if it happens, would not just be an effect of the ever-deepening partisan divide. It could also be a cause. Until two years ago, the two highest-ranking Democrats on Capitol Hill were South Dakotan Daschle and Missourian Dick Gephardt. Both come from red states; both know how to talk to audiences that include some Republicans. If the Democrats had nominated Daschle or Gephardt for President, a lot of Bush aides might be putting their houses on the market about now. But the Democrats chose Kerry, a blue-blood candidate from the bluest of states. Daschle and other red-state Democrats will pay the price. When that happens, Senate Democrats may follow the lead of their House colleagues and replace their fallen leader with someone who better represents the Democratic base -- like House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a very un-Gephardt-like politician from another very blue state.

At least in the short term, that would be good news for the Republicans: one more thing to hang around the necks of red-state Democrats. But Republicans should be careful what they wish for. Even if Bush wins, the Democrats will not be down for good; the partisan wheel will turn before long. And a Democratic party shorn of Daschles and Gephardts, a party in thrall to its Kerrys and Pelosis, is not a party well-equipped to govern a diverse country.

Meanwhile, as the Democratic center of gravity becomes bluer, the Republicans' grows redder. That may hurt Republicans more than Democrats. Their convention this summer highlighted a trio of moderate Republican stars: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Democrats had nothing to match them. McCain's Arizona is a red state, but all three are crossover hits -- Republicans who play well in Democratic territory. If Republicans like that could lead the party in 2008 and after, it might capture and hold a national majority for decades. Ironically, the very success of conservatives like John Thune in places like South Dakota makes that majority harder to grasp.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.


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