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 meatpacking 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. The Johnson campaign has made the case that the current Senate team gives South Dakota more visibility and influence than it has ever had in Washington, something that could disappear overnight if Johnson is defeated and the Senate reverts to Republican hands. Thune has countered that he has influence at the White House. "There isn't anything that you get with Tim Johnson that you don't already have with Tom Daschle," he says. "South Dakota stands to benefit from having somebody who can work with the Republicans." But the botched drought-relief effort has seriously damaged Thune's case. "John likes to say he has the White House on speed-dial. ... If that's true, he must be spending a lot of time on hold," quips Johnson. But in the end, this race is much more about local issues and personal opinions than a referendum on Bush and Daschle.
Statewide congressional races in South Dakota have the flavor of a local city-council election: Just about everyone voting in this state of slightly more than 750,000 has had the chance to meet both candidates. As a result, many voters are basing their decisions on personal relationships with "Tim" and "John," who interact with their constituents on a first-name basis. And though this year's Senate race has been heavily funded from outside the state ("There is more money being spent per capita in this state than anywhere else in the country and perhaps in American history," says Johnson media consultant Karl Struble.), Kranz maintains it will be decided on local concerns.
Pat Trask, a self-described lifelong Republican and father of 12, lives with his family on a ranch 20 miles down a dirt road from the nearest highway. Here, amid the rolling hills and parched fields of western South Dakota, few heads of cattle graze on the windswept prairies, and many ranchers have been forced to sell their herds. Chief among the economic issues worrying these livestock producers are concentration in the meatpacking industry, which prevents them from getting a decent price for cattle, and cheap foreign products that have flooded the markets since the North American Free Trade Agreement's passage. For several years, Johnson has led the charge to ban meatpacker ownership of livestock and to require country-of-origin labeling of meat, fruits and vegetables, which would protect local producers from being priced out of markets by what Trask calls "free-trade dumping." These issues, and his vote against granting President Bush fast-track trade-promotion authority, have made Johnson somewhat of a hero to ranchers who have historically voted Republican.
In February the meatpacking company Smithfield Foods took out full-page ads attacking Johnson and threatened to close the John Morell plant, one of Sioux Falls' largest employers. The local newspaper denounced the threat as "absolutely despicable," farmers called it "blackmail" and ranchers flocked to Johnson's defense. In the House, meanwhile, Thune remained opposed to the so-called packer ban. It was not until several weeks later that Thune reversed course; the significance was not lost on ranchers. "If you're a Republican and you can't admire that kind of courage in a senator from the other party, then you're a dud Republican," Trask says. In addition, Thune's vote for fast track in December was critical in giving Bush a 215-to-214 victory. "John Thune cast the deciding vote for fast track after cattle groups met with him repeatedly and begged him not to do that," says Trask. "He was clearly working for Bush and not for South Dakota's people. I believe it will cost him the Senate race."
Fellow rancher Fox remains undecided about the election but admires Johnson's leadership on trade and meatpacking issues. He praises Thune, however, for fighting environmental groups that wish to keep the prairie dog on an endangered-species list. Most ranchers regard the prairie dog as a pest that destroys their pastures and eliminates food supply for cattle; they would prefer to poison it. This issue is equally important to Fox. "If I don't have vegetation for my livestock to eat, I'm out of business," Fox says. "If I don't get a price for my product, I'm out of business."
More than 200 miles east of Fox's and Trask's ranches, at JerMel's Family Restaurant in downtown Sioux Falls the conversation inevitably turns to the upcoming election. A dozen men gather here at 6 a.m. each day to talk politics. C-SPAN recently visited them; South Dakota's Senate and House candidates have also joined them in recent months. Among this breakfast group -- which includes businessmen, an insurance agent, a Cadillac dealer and a former barber -- Daschle-bashing is very much in vogue. "He keeps getting elected but we haven't been able to locate anybody that voted for him," jokes one man. Their anger at what they see as Daschle's "obstructionist" agenda is enough to earn Thune votes from nearly everyone at the table. "It's time for new leadership in the Senate," says another man. Others complain about recent reports of voter fraud on American-Indian reservations, which would likely help Democrats in a state with a troubled history of white-Indian relations. But Lower Brule tribal Chairman Michael Jandreau insists that only a few dozen fake registrations have turned up so far and that "the auditors should reject them." And, Jandreau wonders, "How many non-Indians could go in without them even bothering to check?"
Elsewhere in the state, talk of gun rights and abortion inevitably comes up. Though Johnson has declared himself a hunter and gun owner, some voters still perceive Thune as stronger on the issue. On the topic of abortion in this socially conservative state, Johnson and Thune have "identical positions," says Trask, who is passionately pro-life.
Still, it's likely that local economic issues will end up carrying the day. Carrie Longwood, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, believes that for her organization's 1,300 livestock producers, the race will come down to a decision between trade issues and environmental ones such as prairie dogs. For undecided voter Fox, "Personally, I feel that Tim Johnson is more in tune with what's going on with rural people and our livelihood." In a state where agriculture is the biggest industry and livestock production is the biggest sector of agriculture, Johnson's stand against meatpackers and unfettered free trade could be just enough to send him back to Washington.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a former Prospect writing fellow and a freelance writer.