In 2004, Ronald Reagan beat George McGovern for one of South Dakota's seats in the U.S. Senate.
Actually, that's not true. But it is a metaphor for Republican John Thune's victory over Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle, according to Jon K. Lauck, author of a new book released this month by the University of Oklahoma Press titled "Daschle vs. Thune: Anatomy of a High-Plains Senate Race."
"The 2004 South Dakota Senate race was fought over the scarred battlefields left by the 1960s and the Reagan revolution, with Daschle defending a remnant of the old order while Thune carried the banner of Reaganism," Lauck wrote.
Lauck, of Sioux Falls, is a senior adviser to Sen. Thune. When the Daschle-Thune race began, Lauck was an assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University. He started making daily comments about the race on an Internet web log, or "blog," called Daschle v. Thune. His work caught the eye of the Thune campaign, and he was hired to work as a research and debate consultant.
In the book's preface, Lauck acknowledged that his ties to Thune may cause some readers to question his analysis. But Lauck thinks his role as a participant in the campaign, rather than a mere observer, was valuable.
"I can assure readers that participatory history has advantages," Lauck wrote. "... It is a fine thing for historians and other academics to have some skin in the game. They should enter the fray, say their piece, and record what they have seen before memories fade."
The McGovern-Reagan comparisons are a central them in the book.
Daschle was a young Democrat when the state party was dominated by McGovern, a congressman, senator and Democratic presidential nominee. In 1968 and 1972, Daschle worked on McGovern campaigns.
McGovern lost his Senate seat in 1980 to Jim Abdnor during the so-called Reagan Revolution. Daschle avenged the loss by beating Abdnor in 1986.
Thune, meanwhile, came of age during the Reagan presidency and worked for Abdnor.
When Daschle and Thune finally squared off in their own Senate race, it seemed predestined.
"In 2004, Reaganite conservatism would be represented in the South Dakota Senate race by John Thune," Lauck wrote. "The traditions and memories of McGovernism and Reaganism would collide."
The Reagan comparisons intensified in June 2004 when, just five months prior to the November election, the former president died and the national media launched a review of his legacy. Lauck said the renewed, positive attention on Reagan negatively affected Democrats like Daschle.
"... Daschle and other critics of Reagan lost the popular argument over the historical memory of Reagan and, as a result, suffered politically."
Much of the rest of the book is a blow-by-blow account of the slugfest that was the Daschle vs. Thune race. Lauck said the race was the most expensive, per capita, in the nation's history. Daschle spent a total of $21 million, and Thune spent $15 million.
Lauck said Thune's decision to enter the race was "clinched" by what Thune saw as Daschle's inexcusable failure in November 2003 to actively support an energy bill that sought to boost ethanol production. Democrats, of whom Daschle was the Senate leader, filibustered the bill. Thune seized on the episode as evidence of "obstructionism" by the Daschle-led Democrats and used it as a central campaign issue.
"Daschle's obligation to his Senate caucus had helped undermine a major piece of legislation important to farmers in South Dakota," Lauck wrote. "Daschle faced a difficult choice: he could serve as the partisan leader of the Senate Democrats, thrust and parry with Senator Frist, and serve as the loyal opposition to President Bush in an age of partisan bickering, or he could fully represent his state's interests. But he could not do both."
Upon entering the race in January 2004, Thune decided to delay his public advertising campaign. He and his advisers thought the state had grown weary of drawn-out election ads.
The Daschle campaign, meanwhile, already had been running ads for months. Thune focused instead on grassroots campaigning, according to Lauck, and did not run television ads until July.
"While the Daschle campaign ran an advertising 'air war,' Thune ran a mobile ground war, hitting and running behind Daschle's front lines," Lauck wrote. "Thune routinely visited Democratic strongholds in the state, including northeastern South Dakota and the Indian reservations, while Daschle battled the president's allies in Washington. As a master of retail politics, Thune knew that personal visits and voter contact in a small rural state such as South Dakota could counter large-scale media buys."
Lauck also devotes attention to the rise of the "blogosphere," which he contends was a crucial influence on the race. Anti-Daschle bloggers, working independently of the mainstream media, blogged about the senator's every move and "provided a stark contrast to LBJ's years as leader, when he could differentiate his Texas statements from his pronouncements in Washington."
A primary reason for the ascendance of blogs in South Dakota, according to Lauck, was the lack of critical Daschle coverage by South Dakota's largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Lauck repeatedly criticized the Argus and its political reporter, David Kranz, for what Lauck and other bloggers perceived as the newspaper's pro-Daschle bias. Lauck said Daschle had benefited his entire career from positive coverage by the Argus, but "the Internet scrambled longtime political practices."
Lauck quoted national blogger, radio host and law professor Hugh Hewitt as saying during the race that the "influence of blogging on politics is nowhere more obvious than in South Dakota."
In the final analysis, though, Lauck attributed the Daschle defeat to "the continuing momentum of political conservatism." Lauck said Daschle had achieved electoral successes in South Dakota by presenting himself as a moderate, but Daschle's downfall came when his positions became more aligned with national Democrats opposed to most aspects of the Reagan legacy.
"John Thune represented the ongoing resonance of Reaganism and embraced the Reagan tradition in his successful bid to defeat the Democrats' leader," Lauck wrote. "The Reagan position still held in 2004 in South Dakota, but its strength remains to be determined in the varied fronts of American politics."