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Thune sees victory as a mandate and a warning
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South Dakota Sen.-elect John Thune says voters were concerned about the direction of the country this election. He sees his victory as a mandate to push the president's agenda. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
South Dakota's new senator-elect has been called a hero and a giant-killer by some, and a huge mistake by others. Republican John Thune defeated Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle earlier this month, in a race that was called the most important race outside of the bid for the White House. Thune sees his victory as a mandate for the Senate to do its work. Many outside South Dakota expect great things to come from Thune's victory. But the locals are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — South Dakotans have this thing about senators serving more than three terms. No one can really explain it. George McGovern, Larry Pressler and now Tom Daschle all lost their bids for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. Their opponents said they'd lost touch with the people, and in each race the voters agreed.

Chris Rossing voted for Daschle. He says it was a tough choice, because he likes both men. In fact, he even got his picture taken with both John Thune and Tom Daschle.

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Image Chris Rossing with Daschle

"I wanted to make sure I had one with the winner, regardless of who won," Rossing laughs.

Rossing is the commanding officer for the Naval Reserve Center in Sioux Falls. He credits Daschle's leadership position in providing funding for water projects and highway reconstruction.

But at the same time, Rossing is willing to give Sen.-elect Thune a chance to prove himself. Rossing says he hopes something will come of Thune's relationship with the Bush administration.

"Hopefully he'll make hay while the sun shines, and turn political clout into something that will sustain itself in the future. He's no newbie, he's been in Congress before," says Rossing.

Some are more confident John Thune can deliver things Tom Daschle couldn't. Curt Hage, CEO of Home Federal Bank, says it's premature to identify what's lost and what's gained with the change in senators. Hage says both candidates brought something important to the table.

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Image Rossing with John Thune

"This really boiled down to ideology and core values, and things not so easy to articulate, to differentiate in people. But in the hearts of people, it was an important thing," says Hage.

Throughout the campaign, Thune often talked about his core values. The Republican Party ran frequent ads showing pictures of Tom and Linda Daschle's million-dollar home and new Jaguar. Thune says that's a slap in the face to the people of South Dakota.

Thune says his message of core values took awhile to catch on with voters. He said by Election Day, it was clear people were tired of the country moving further and further to the left.

"It was amazing to me. Early on I'd make speeches about openings on the Supreme Court, or getting these appellate nominees confirmed, and people would look at me like, 'Who cares?'" says Thune. "Toward the end of the campaign, I'd make that speech and it was one of the biggest applause lines. Because people see the country kind of drifting to the left and they're concerned about that, and they kind of want to bring it back into balance."

This really boiled down to ideology and core values, and things not so easy to articulate. But in the hearts of people, it was an important thing.
- Curt Hage, CEO, Home Federal Bank

Thune says several issues became symbolic of where the country was headed. He says those were debates over same-sex marriage debate, abortion and whether the phrase "under God" should be in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thune sees his victory as a mandate to push the Bush administration's agenda. He repeatedly called Tom Daschle the chief obstructionist. Thune also sees his victory as a warning to other Democrats who stand in the way.

"The message out of this election is -- don't," says Thune. "Serve your constituents, be a voice for them, listen to them. Don't necessarily listen to the national Democratic Party, because they might lead you in a direction that could cost you politically in your home state."

Thune expects Daschle supporters will watch him closely. He says that's part of the job.

He downplays any future leadership positions in the Senate or a possible run for president. Instead, Thune says, he just wants to be a good senator for South Dakota.

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