The summer solstice for us north-of-the-equator types arrives Monday, June 21, but political events suggest temperatures in farm country will be rising long before the sun finally hovers over the Tropic of Cancer.
Take South Dakota. On June 1, voters in the Sunshine State – or, if your prefer, the Coyote State – will choose either Republican farmer Larry Diedrich or Democratic lawyer Stephanie Herseth to fill the unexpired U.S. House term of the state’s biggest GOP bigwig, Bill Janklow.
The baggage. The hotly contested race for South Dakota’s only Congressional seat always carries a boxcar of baggage, but the baggage is mountainous and national in 2004.
First, the post is the launching pad of U.S. Senate bids.
Both current senators, Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Democrat Tim Johnson, held the seat before moving up. Johnson won a paper-thin, 2002 Senate re-election against the then-representative, Republican challenger John Thune.
‘Safe race.’ Thune had set his sights on a safe race, replacing retiring, four-term Gov. Bill Janklow, and only accepted the 2002 Senate fight after an arm-twisting, moon-promising dinner with President George W. Bush and political kingmaker Karl Rove.
Money and politicians poured into the state, but Thune lost by the width of a fingernail, 49.5 percent to Johnson’s 49.6 percent.
Thune’s race against Johnson opened the House seat for Janklow to face — you guessed it – Stephanie Herseth.
Janklow, the best vote-getter in South Dakota history, beat Herseth by a scant 25,000 votes out of nearly 340,000 cast.
Over quick. But Big Bill’s House career was short and tragic.
Last August, Janklow gunned his Caddie through a stop sign on a rural state road and hit a passing motorcycle. The motorcycle driver was killed. Janklow didn’t go quietly, though.
He asked for and got a trial by a jury of fellow South Dakotans and they convicted him of manslaughter in January.
Thune didn’t go quietly, either.
After Janklow’s resignation in January, the thin, trim former state basketball star turned down another his-for-the-asking, slam-dunk race – his old House seat – to make what looks like a second Senate suicide run; this one against three-term incumbent Tom Daschle.
Hot, hot. That race already is hot. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., waltzed across South Dakota May 22 raising cash and votes for Thune.
Political old-timers claim it was the first time in 50 years that any Senate leader campaigned against his opposition counterpart.
Daschle took the occasion to toss the pair a few high hard ones.
He urged Thune to convince Frist to back mandatory country of origin labeling for red meat and to pass market-expanding ethanol legislation. Frist has bottled-up both bills in the Senate despite widespread bipartisan Senate and rural support.
All about dollars? If the race was to be determined on campaign cash, Daschle would cream Thune, $10.4 million to $2.3 million, according to May 21 data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Voters, however, pick the final winner and South Dakota is a dyed-in-the-wool red state – President Bush won in it in landslide in 2000 – that just happens to elect Democrats to its Senate and House seats more often than not.
Current polling suggests that trend will continue in the June 1 House election between Herseth, the granddaughter of a former governor, and Diedrich, who tossed his hat into the 2002 House race but quickly pulled it back when Bigfoot Janklow stepped in.
The fight, with Herseth ahead by a neck a week before election day, resembles the Daschle-Thune scrap: national.
Money game. First Lady Laura Bush dropped into South Dakota May 18 to raise money for Diedrich. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi touts – and sends checks – to Herseth.
The money race is over. Herseth has pocketed $2 for every $1 Diedrich’s been able to scrounge.
Whoever wins June 1, two things are certain.
First, the winning party – forget the candidate – will tout the victory as indicative of November’s completely unpredictable results.
Second, Herseth and Diedrich will likely face each other again in November for full, two-year term in the House.
Did I mention that it’s going to be a long, hot summer?
(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net. Read his columns online at www.farmanddairy.com.)
© 2004 ag comm