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WOSTER: Abdnor learned lesson from 1970 defeat -- and he never forgot it

Terry Woster

I don't know if Jim Abdnor had ever lost before 1970.

Oh, sure, in sports, maybe -- basketball games, a baseball game or two, maybe football now and then. But not in politics, not in an election.

The first time I talked with Abdnor, after he lost the Republican primary for the Second District congressional seat in June 1970, was about the only time I ever saw the man actually down.

He'd been defeated by a relatively unknown opponent in a race everyone knew he would win walking away.

There were reasons for his defeat that day. The weather was good and people wanted to get into the fields. Everyone in South Dakota knew he would win, anyway, so what were a couple of votes not cast compared to getting a long day's farm work done?

Heck, Abdnor could understand that. He farmed the Lyman County prairie around Kennebec. He knew the importance of, well, making hay while the sun shines. He didn't blame his friends and supporters when he lost.

He blamed himself, and that was what bothered him. He had taken things for granted, he said. When folks said they supported him and he would win, he should have asked again for their vote, should have reminded them again that they needed to get to the polls.

The problem, Abdnor said, was that he started reading his press clippings and forgot to run the race through the tape. He also said that would never happen again if he ran for office.

He might not win again, he said, but he'd never forget to work for every single vote.

That was more than 40 years ago. In every encounter before and after, he was upbeat. He may not have been ecstatic or jovial every time, but he was always positive and optimistic.

At his core, he believed people were good, young people were worth special notice and praise, and while the world had problems, they weren't so many or so massive they couldn't be overcome by stout-hearted men and women working together.

Two years after that 1970 defeat, Abdnor ran again for that congressional seat. I traveled with him a time or two, and each time we were together, he walked the downtown streets and he walked the neighborhoods, from early morning to late evening.

Every potential voter he met, he asked if they would support him. Most said they would. Many said he was a shoo-in.

To each person, he said, "Nobody's a shoo-in. I really need you to make sure to go and vote. I appreciate your support, but make sure you get to the polling place on Election Day.''

He won, walking away.

His record in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are well known. Since his death earlier this week at age 89, his basic background and election record have been in print and on the air, as they should be. He was a South Dakota treasure, a humble, down-home farmer who earned what he achieved by working hard and being honest.

Even though he quit reading his own press clippings, for a long, long time, he read everyone else's press clippings.

I don't know if I ever had a conversation with Abdnor -- from the time he was lieutenant governor through the time he was a U.S. senator -- when our conversation didn't make him think of something and send him pawing through the various pockets of his suit coat and trousers, most of which were stuffed with clippings cut or torn from newspapers and magazines.

I don't know if any other U.S. senator in history ever did that, but Jim Abdnor did. And it worked for him. Somehow, in one pocket or another, he always found what he was after.

When he did, he'd press it flat and offer it to me. "See? That's what I'm talking about. Isn't that something?''

He was successful at politics before focus groups and polls and social media and staying-on-message and negative campaigns. He succeeded by relying on character, conscience and a kind heart.

That's a simple formula, and I guess Jim Abdnor was a simple man. If so, politics could use a lot more like him.