As a game of political chicken shapes up between freshman U.S. senator John Thune and the White House, the biggest casualty could be President Bush's agenda.
With strong backing from the national GOP and the president, Thune defeated Tom Daschle, the Democrats' number-one man in the Senate, in a race that saw South Dakota become one of the nation's most contentious political battlegrounds. Thune and his supporters were able to out Daschle as the liberal obstructionist he really was--as opposed to the moderate he played on the county-fair circuit. Daschle's charade didn't always work, but he could at least trumpet his seniority and position as minority leader to voters concerned about preserving Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City. Thune countered that a GOP senator with friendly ties to President Bush would be in a better position to keep the base--South Dakota's second-largest employer--from closing its gates permanently.
Not one year from the election, Thune finds himself in the worst position he could imagine. Those friendly ties didn't stay the Pentagon's hand, and Ellsworth has been marked for closure. Democrats are saying that Thune couldn't deliver the goods when it mattered. Daschle himself chimed in with an I-told-you-so, and took credit for saving the base ten years ago: "It was clearly my relationship with President Clinton," he told a Sioux Falls television station. "I had to go to him directly and ask him to take it off the list, and fortunately, because I was the Democratic leader, he was kind enough to do that. It's a little harder this time."
Ellsworth has an estimated economic impact of $278 million and an annual payroll of $161 million. "Some folks wonder why I'm so worked up," Thune says. "They say, 'Thune, it's only an airbase.' Everyone familiar with western South Dakota knows full well that the economy of the area and Ellsworth are nearly one and the same." The state's congressional delegation, regardless of party affiliation, understands the base's importance, and Gov. Mike Rounds has added two positions to his staff: One will coordinate efforts to save Ellsworth and the 6,700 jobs that will be lost if it closes; the other will see what can be done with the base in the event it is shuttered.