Spotlight on South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. — In the most important political race in the country after the presidential contest, senate minority leader Tom Daschle faces a strong challenge from former Rep. John Thune, a Republican who lost by a few hundred votes in 2002 in his attempt to defeat incumbent Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson.

South Dakota is a strongly pro-life state and Thune is a pro-life, pro-marriage-amendment candidate and an evangelical Christian. Daschle's position against allowing the federal marriage amendment to come to the Senate floor on July 14 capped a series of anti-family votes. Some polls have put the race at a dead heat; others have put Daschle ahead. But most observers agree that it could go either way.

Said Robert Regier, executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, “Thune has put the marriage issue front and center. At the Family Policy Council, we're making it front and center. We're going to make sure as many voters as possible know Daschle voted against it.”

To that end, Regier said, the council intends to send out at least 100,000 voter guides explaining the positions of the candidates. “We work with Catholic and Protestant churches,” and the council wants to target Christians who tend to stay home on Election Day, he said.

The council was active before the Senate marriage amendment vote, running ads in local newspapers. Daschle insists that he is against same-sex “marriage” and that a federal amendment is not necessary because South Dakota law forbids it. But most legal experts believe that the federal courts will declare unconstitutional the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and thus require states to recognize same-sex “marriages” performed in other states.

Regier said that in addition to voter guides and possibly more ads, the council will help to bring in prominent speakers to rally support for marriage. “We've had Alan Keyes here,” he said. “We've worked with groups like Vision America and Focus on the Family. James Dobson will come over Labor Day weekend and again in October.”

Linda Schauer, head of the state chapter of Concerned Women for America, said that although her organization did not support the marriage amendment — “we didn't feel it was strong enough” because it would not outlaw civil unions — she and her associates are dead-set against Daschle. “We're really working to elect John Thune,” she said. “We've had a press conference in Aberdeen. We've run ads…. Daschle panders to the homosexual lobby. We support the Marriage Protection Act, and we're interested to see how he votes on that.”

The Marriage Protection Act, which has passed the House, would prohibit the federal courts from reviewing the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — although many experts believe the courts would ignore such legislation.

Dick Wadhams, Thune's campaign manager, said Thune has highlighted the marriage issue in his race. “We took a high-profile position,” Wadhams said. “It was actually the first radio ad we aired.” He noted that a Rapid City Journal poll found that 75% of South Dakotans oppose same-sex “marriage.”

Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls urged Catholic citizens to encourage Daschle and Johnson to vote for the federal marriage amendment before the Senate vote. Although the Church does not endorse or oppose political candidates, “the Catholic Church can speak to issues,” said Travis Benson, who lobbies on behalf of the Sioux Falls diocese. “The Church has a moral voice to bring to the public square.” He said that the Bishop's Bulletin and the bishop's radio show have addressed the issue of marriage and “Bishop Carlson has personally written a letter to both Sen. Daschle and Sen. Johnson” on the issue.

— Joseph D'Agostino