Skip to main content

South Dakota on Nation Watch

Senate may again depend on Indian vote

RAPID CITY, S.D. - For the second time in as many elections the American
Indian population in South Dakota will have an important role to play in
the makeup of the U.S. Senate.

Incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. has a formidable opponent for his seat.
John Thune, former representative is supported by the Bush administration
to remove Daschle from office. Thune lost a squeaker of an election in 2002
against Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. who retained his seat with the help of
American Indian voter turnout.

This election year, as in 2002, control of the Senate is in question. The
margin now is 51 Republicans to 48 Democrats and Daschle is the minority
leader, reduced from majority leader after the 2002 increase in Republican

In 2004, Senate watchers will have their eyes on Colorado, South Dakota,
Florida, Illinois and Alaska as prime interest states. In Colorado, the
only American Indian in the Senate, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, said he
would not seek reelection, which opened up the field to strong Democratic
candidates. Campbell was originally elected to the Senate as a Democrat,
but changed his party affiliation in 1995 to Republican.

Strong Democratic leader Ken Salazar, Colorado Attorney General, has
announced he will run for Campbell's seat while most top Republicans have
indicated no interest even though the Republican field is increasing in

So far in South Dakota, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in the state to
help Thune in a fundraiser. Republican officials locally and nationally
said it would be an all-out campaign to elect Thune and House of
Representatives candidate Larry Diedrick. He is running against Democrat
Stephanie Herseth.

They are vying to fill the vacancy left by Bill Janklow who resigned after
he was found guilty of felony charges in the death of a Minnesota man in a
traffic accident.

President Bush traveled to South Dakota four times in 2002 to support
Thune, who at the time was handpicked by the administration to run against
Sen. Johnson. This year looks to be no different, although the Democrats
start at a financial disadvantage. The National Republican Senate
Reelection Campaign has an estimated $12.8 million in its bank account, the
Democratic equivalent has only $3.5 million.

Also, South Dakota is expected to support Bush by a margin of 20 percentage
points. Politicos claim Thune could ride Bush's popularity in South Dakota
into the Senate. The Republicans early in the process said they would
campaign hard in South Dakota, and this time around not neglect an
important segment of the population, the American Indian.

Thune admitted he did not spend enough time on reservations in the past,
but this time will be different, he said.

"This year I will make it to the reservations to hear people's concerns. We
will have a new strategy, I intend to reach out. I thought we were doing a
good job last time," Thune said.

Daschle, however, has a long-established connection to the reservations, in
South Dakota and nationally. He has fought for change in trust reform,
works to increase funding for local and national projects and has a
longstanding battle with trust reform and the Department of Interior.

Locally, some South Dakota tribes have criticized Sen. Daschle, especially
with what is referred to as the Mitigation Bill. This legislation turned
over federal lands to two tribes and the state, against the wishes of other
tribes who claimed the land was theirs in the first place by treaty. Many
tribal leaders say Daschle will have to explain that move to traditional
people on reservations, people who will potentially vote.

"There are tribes on both sides of the issue. I will work with the tribes
and address their concerns," Daschle said. He added that if the tribes
would take a close look at what the Mitigation Act does, they would

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"Ask any person who has a concern about what I have done for Indian
country. I don't want people to distort my record. There is not a person
who has fought harder in the Senate than I have."

Daschle has an opponent for the primary election. Newspaper publisher and
columnist Tim Giago, Oglala Lakota, has officially announced his candidacy.

Giago said he wants to increase the awareness of American Indian issues in
the campaign. In his official announcement he said that many issues that
affect the reservations also affect the state.

"We're talking about health, the economy, outsourcing jobs. So, there are
many things that I can talk about that I think are important to both

He said it was time to talk openly about issues like the Black Hills
Settlement and what he refers to as the state's Achilles heel - racism.

Giago, as a columnist, first challenged Gov. George Mickelson to enter into
a time of reconciliation in South Dakota, in the early 1990s. Mickelson
ordered a century of reconciliation. Mickelson was killed in a plane crash
in 1992 and since then the concept has not been paid attention to by other
state leaders.

Giago said that Daschle and Sen. Johnson were ducking some issues and he
said Thune will most likely duck them as well. "I think some of the issues
are important enough to the nine tribes in this state that we've got to get
them on the table."

Thune has said he would do what he could to get the support in Indian
country. "Perhaps I didn't do a good job of communicating in the past. I
will do much better. It's a challenge. For the future of the state it is
worth doing, and we can be successful. Indian country will be important and
we can make a case for the Republican side," Thune said.

Jesse Claussen, voter organizer in Bennett County, lodged between the Pine
Ridge and Rosebud reservations was successful in 2002 with his organization
to have three American Indians elected to county offices. The end result
was a very large voter turnout in that district.

Claussen said the democrats have a consistently better record on American
Indian issues than republicans, although Thune will have his say and people
will listen. And if he can convince the American Indian voter that he will
serve the community better, he will get the vote. Then he has to follow up.

Sen. Johnson was tested after he claimed the American Indian vote returned
him to the Senate. He did return to the reservations and continues to
listen to tribal leaders. That's what is needed Claussen said.

"Liberal thinking does better for the small guy. A lot of people here got
no tax credit. If you get $1,300 back, they would rather have had it go to
areas that were cut, like IHS, the BIA instead of a tax cut," Claussen

There is also a problem with offending a candidate. Claussen said they had
to be careful and not offend Thune, because if he gets in, it then may hurt
Indian country.

Claussen also said with two democrats in the senate Indian country
benefits. Johnson is on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the
Appropriations Committee, Daschle supports the Indian Affairs Committee and
is also Minority Leader of the Senate.

South Dakota experienced charges of voter fraud on the reservations that
were later proven unfounded in the 2002 general election cycle. This year
the legislature passed a bill that requires all voters to present a photo
ID before issuance of a ballot. Many tribal officials claim it is illegal
and another attempt by the state or Republican party to restrict or
intimidate American Indian voters.

Both parties plan all-out voter registration campaigns on the reservations
and throughout the state.