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Late Night: The 49-State Strategy

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. . . and counting. . . down.

Dateline: Pierre, SD [h/t Political Wire]—Hello. . . .

South Dakota Democrats have failed to find a candidate to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune.

Democratic Party officials had acknowledged earlier they might not find anyone to run against Thune, a popular politician who is seeking a second term in the Senate. The lack of a Democratic candidate became official Thursday when election officials posted the final list of candidates who submitted nominating petitions to run for statewide offices and the Legislature in the June primary.

State Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem of Sioux Falls, the Democratic candidate for governor, said the party decided not to field a candidate in a futile race against Thune.

“We just concluded that John Thune is an extremely popular senator who is going to win another term in the Senate,” Heidepriem said.


Yes, John Thune is a popular Senator—so popular, in fact, that he is widely believed to be considering a run at the Republican nomination for President in 2012. So, getting a pass on having to fend off attacks and spend money in 2010 is no doubt music to Thune’s ears—not to mention the RNC and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In the end, it is the decision of the South Dakota Democratic Party and its leaders to take their ball and go home, but you really have to wonder what the hell has happened at the national level. Tim Kaine, Bob Menendez, I’m looking at you.

Tim Kaine is head of the Democratic National Committee, and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez is in charge of the DSCC, and both, if they had so chosen, could have played a significant role in making a contest out of the SD senate race. It is not like Dems winning state-wide office in South Dakota is unheard of—its other Senate slot and at-large House seat belong, at least nominally, to Democrats.

And it is not like the unexpected never happens.

Think back to 2005, 2006, when a brash, youngish Senator from Virginia was not only considered a lock for another term, but was thought a serious contender for president. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I give you Senator President private citizen George Allen.

George “macaca” Allen.

In other words, things happen—just as they did that same year in NY-23 and FL-16—and, like they say with the lottery, you gotta be in it to win it.

This was the belief and, indeed, the strategy of the Democratic Party under its previous chair, Howard Dean. Dean’s very public 50-state strategy was designed for both short- and long-term success. In the short-term, contesting every race meant that Republicans had to allocate something everywhere, even if only token amounts. It meant that popular “locks” still had to spend some time close to home, and so couldn’t do as much campaigning and fundraising for other GOP candidates. And it meant that should a candidate let his racist side show, or get caught sleeping with underage pages or beating his wife, there was an actual, living, breathing Democrat to take advantage of the change in fortunes.

In the long-term, intelligent, properly run campaigns, even if long shots, build the party. They make connections among the faithful, build infrastructure, bring new, energetic volunteers into the system, and lay the groundwork for the next race, and the one after that, when because of demographic or political shifts, the contest might not be so one-sided. Doing it that way surely beats the hell out of getting caught flat-footed, or trying to rapidly dump money and imported staff into a fast-evolving situation.

Of course, the 50-state strategy had its detractors—most notably, Rahm Emanuel, who spared no spittle when sparring with Chairman Dean back in ’06. It seems building the democratic wing of the Democratic Party can be unsettling. Spreading the resources around means less for rewarding the loyal “majority makers,” and new, state-focused blood might not be as predictable or as obedient. Democracy can be a bitch sometimes.

So, now that Rahm is in the White House, and the president’s guy, Kaine, has replaced Dean, you don’t hear as much about the whole fifty of our states—and that leaves a hole in South Dakota’s ballot.

Yes [sigh], the filing deadline for Democrats has passed in Pierre, but the filing deadline for independent candidates isn’t until early June. Surely, in such an independent-minded state as South Dakota, there must be an independent man or woman with some political savvy and ties to community organizations or local businesses that thinks John Thune doesn’t deserve a free pass—an activist, a teacher, a community leader, or a biker. . . or at least a disgruntled Democrat that can still count to 50.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine