DWU speaker: Mistrust of 'big' befalls some SD senatorsSouth Dakotans are suspicious of things they perceive as big, according to a historian who spoke at the 2011 McGovern Conference on Monday in Mitchell.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
South Dakotans are suspicious of things they perceive as big, according to a historian who spoke at the 2011 McGovern Conference on Monday in Mitchell.
Big government, big business and politicians who seem to have gotten too big for the state are often the target of public ire, said Northern State University political science professor Jon Schaff during the last of five sessions at the conference, held in the Sherman Center on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University.
Often, U.S. senators are seen as big figures, and that leads to strong challengers and what moderator Dusty Johnson called “titanic” Senate races.
Incumbent senators who have earned national reputations and clout find their political careers ended by South Dakota voters who cast a wary eye on them, Schaff said.
“In South Dakota, we do have a history of defeating U.S. senators running for re-election,” Schaff said.
In 1980, Mitchell native and conference namesake George McGovern was defeated by Jim Abdnor, and then Abdnor lost to Tom Daschle in 1986. Larry Pressler fell to Tim Johnson in 1996, and Daschle was unseated by John Thune in 2004.
During that time period, 85 percent of senators who sought re-election in the country won, Schaff said.
But in South Dakota, incumbent senators ran 11 races and lost four times, a 64 percent success rate.
Schaff noted that two of the senators who lost were Democrats — McGovern and Daschle — while the other two — Abdnor and Pressler — were Republicans.
It comes down to a mistrust of “big” in the state, he said, quoting a 2004 article in “South Dakota History,” a scholarly journal. The article was written by then-South Dakota State University professors Ed Hogan, John Miller and Jon Lauck.
Running against big government is an effective campaign weapon for a Republican, Schaff said, while running against big business is often a useful method for Democrats.
Running against a “big” politician who is perceived as having gone national and lost touch with South Dakota works for both parties, he said.
There are other factors in the defeats of incumbent senators, according to Schaff.
“The high-profile nature of the Senate makes that attractive for strong challengers,” he said.
McGovern lost to Abdnor, a sitting congressman; Abdnor lost to Daschle, who had been elected to Congress four times; Pressler lost to Johnson, who had served 10 years in the U.S. House; and Daschle lost to Thune, who had served in the House and had just waged a very close Senate race with Johnson.
Senators have numerous advantages, Schaff said, such as access to free mailing, the ability to deliver federal projects and dollars to the state, records of constituent service, strong name recognition and ready access to donors.
But a challenger who has already ran and won a race for federal office makes a worthy opponent, he said.
The challenger can also claim the incumbent has lost touch with the state, especially if the incumbent gains a leadership role in the Senate or becomes a nationally known figure, such as McGovern and Daschle.
“In each case, we see a challenger using South Dakota culture to his advantage,” Schaff said.
He said the state’s current senators, Johnson and Thune, seem determined not to lose touch with their constituents or to allow someone to depict them that way.
Thune recently announced his candidacy for the No. 3 post in the Senate Republican caucus and also flirted with a run for the White House.
Schaff said it will be interesting to see if Thune can avoid “the trap” that befell other South Dakota senators.
Schaff is one of the authors of an essay in the book “The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture.”
The chapters in the book were used for topics during the annual McGovern Conference. Almost all the writers attended, spoke and signed copies of the book.
The conference appeared to draw several hundred attendees, including DWU students, faculty, members of the community, South Dakota residents and some people who came from other states to attend.
Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party; state Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton; and Dusty Johnson, chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard and a Mitchell resident, served as moderators for some of the panel discussions.