MERCER: Abdnor a politican who toppled giants

Why hasn't Jim Abdnor received the respect he would seem to have deserved? He was only the biggest political giant killer during the past half-century. He defeated Democrat George McGovern in 1980, once and for all, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Bob Mercer

Why hasn't Jim Abdnor received the respect he would seem to have deserved?

He was only the biggest political giant killer during the past half-century.

He defeated Democrat George McGovern in 1980, once and for all, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

He was the only candidate ever to beat Bill Janklow. That was in the 1986 Republican primary for the Senate nomination.

He lost to Tom Daschle in the 1986 general election. That ended his career in elected office that had begun in 1956, when he won his first of six terms in the state Senate.


But it didn't stop Jim Abdnor's toppling of giants.

He saw his loss to Daschle avenged in 2004 when his protégé, John Thune, became the only candidate ever to beat Daschle.

At the time Daschle was the U.S. Senate's Democratic leader and perhaps the most powerful Democratic official in our nation.

We pause to consider the life and times of Jim Abdnor these days, because his time seems to be approaching the same end none can escape.

He turned 89 on Feb. 13 and recently was moved into hospice care.

He listed his home address during his political years as Kennebec and he described his professions during his early adult years as farmer, teacher and coach.

He never got too far away from those things. In the '86 battle against Daschle, one of the tag lines from the Abdnor campaign was a choice between a show horse and a workhorse.

To understand why Jim Abdnor won and won and won and won and then lost -- and then won again through John Thune, whom he recruited from the basketball court into political service -- is a lesson in the political geography of South Dakota.


Lyman County, for reasons unclear to mankind, has long been a sort of starting ground for successful politicians. That Jim Abdnor could win election to the Legislature, and keep winning every two years through six consecutive elections, suggested he had what the local leaders thought it took.

His fellow state senators did, too. For his final term they chose him as president pro tem, meaning he was the top presiding officer for the Senate chamber after the lieutenant governor.

In those days the lieutenant governor was elected as a standalone candidate rather than as running mate on a Republican or Democratic team with the party's candidate for governor. Abdnor won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1968 and was elected.

He served two years as the No. 2 during the administration of Republican Gov. Frank Farrar. The political trouble that Farrar faced in 1970, with a primary challenge from Republican state Sen. Rudy Henderson, and a loss to Democrat Dick Kneip in November, didn't directly attach to Abdnor.

He won a U.S. House house seat in 1972. That marked the re-start of his rise in South Dakota politics with the West River congressional district as his base. He won re-election in 1974, 1976 and 1978.

The big target for Republicans in 1980 was Democratic U.S. Sen. McGovern. McGovern had to go through a Democratic primary for the Senate nomination in 1980. Republicans proudly displayed campaign buttons that read, "George McGovern doesn't speak for me."

On Election Day, Abdnor crushed McGovern with 190,594 votes to 129,018. Adnor, in his first statewide general election, proved to be more than a West River candidate.

He won all but three counties -- Clay, Shannon and Todd -- and edged McGovern even in Minnehaha County, where McGovern's campaign should have been at its strongest.


Then came 1986. Janklow was term-limited as governor after eight years. Rather than run for the U.S. House, Janklow challenged Abdnor for the Republican nomination to the Senate seat.

Janklow's polling at the time showed he faced an uphill race against Abdnor but could beat Daschle, while Daschle could defeat Abdnor.

Those trends held true. Abdnor won against Janklow 63,414 to 52,924. Abdnor's margin in Pennington County overcame Janklow's margin in Minnehaha County. But the fact that Janklow won Minnehaha showed the vulnerability that would soon doom Abdnor.

Daschle won in November 152,567 to 143,173. He finished ahead of Abdnor in Minnehaha County by more than 5,000 votes, and more than three times the margin that Abdnor won in Pennington.

Abdnor served as head of the Small Business Administration under President Reagan after the loss. One of his aides during that final Senate campaign and at SBA was John Thune.

Thune eventually served six years in the U.S. House and challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002, losing by 524 votes. He came back in 2004 and challenged Daschle. Thune won by 4,508 votes.

Thune lost in Minnehaha County by about 1,500 votes but won in Pennington County by about 8,300. The punishing lesson of 1986 was reversed 18 years later.

Now they are all gone from South Dakota's political scene: Bill Janklow dead last January, George McGovern the elderly historical figure in Mitchell, Tom Daschle essentially off the radar screen, and Jim Abdnor in hospice.


Such is the final page from which none, politician or not, can escape.

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