The Calm Before the Storm In Daschle Re-Election Bid

Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader of the Senate, has an advertising head start in his re-election fight against John Thune, who narrowly lost the race for South Dakota’s other Senate seat in 2002.

People from all over the state have been singing Daschle’s praises since the summer in testimonial ads. In one, farmers in Aurora extend their gratitude to Daschle for his support of the state’s ethanol industry. In another, members of a family thank him for helping to reinstate their health insurance.

Daschle plans to raise $10 million for the campaign. Some $3-4 million is likely to go toward advertising in the state, said Karl Struble, a principal at Struble Eichenbaum Communications in Washington and Daschle’s media adviser since 1984.

Thune’s campaign said it was too soon to provide spending estimates. Thune, 43, announced his candidacy in early January and last week hired media consultant Scott Howell of Dallas-based Scott Howell & Co. Howell is also on the media team that is preparing ads for President Bush [Adweek, Dec.8].

The Daschle testimonial ads are being benched temporarily this week in favor of an issue ad that addresses the new Medicare Reform Act. In it, Daschle tells seniors at a restaurant that he has his own Medicare plan that will help them get cheaper prescription drugs. Struble says the ad is in response to town-hall meetings Daschle has conducted in which Medicare has been a major topic. It will air in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

It’s just the beginning. “John Thune getting into the race will make the South Dakota race as closely watched and competitive as it was in 2002,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm for Senate Democrats.

The White House threw “everything but the kitchen sink” behind Thune’s effort to unseat Democrat Tim Johnson in 2002, Woodhouse said. Thune lost by a mere 524 votes. In a state where President Bush is hugely popular (he carried 60 percent of the vote there in the 2000 election), Thune figures to get as much support or more this time around.

But Daschle, 56, the Democratic leader of the Senate since 1994, is ready, said Woodhouse. “There are few Democratic campaigns in the country as far along as Daschle’s in terms of ads and on-ground strategy,” he said.

Woodhouse said the strategy emphasizes Daschle’s experience. “We expect it to be a competitive race, but in the end, in a small state like South Dakota, voters value seniority and understand how difficult it is for a small state to get attention in Washington,” Woodhouse said. “The idea that [voters] would replace [Daschle] with somebody who in the House was relatively unaccomplished and did not hold senior positions defies imagination.”

Thune served three terms as South Dakota’s lone member of the House of Representatives. His campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, said ads will feature Thune talking about his own vision for South Dakota.

Ultimately, the ads are likely to get negative. “I know at some point both campaigns will engage in contrast ads,” Wadhams said.

“We’ll only get negative if he’s attacked by Thune or a third-party group,” Struble said. “We’d just as soon talk about what Tom has done and what he has to do.”

Struble expects 40-50 South Dakotans will talk about what Daschle has done for them in ads before the campaign is through. “They show that South Dakotans need Tom Daschle because he fights and delivers for them,” said campaign manager Steve Hildebrand.