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Reid, Daschle feud erupts

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Simmering tensions between Harry Reid and Tom Daschle are erupting into an all-out feud.

Daschle is expressing frustration with the Senate majority leader (D-Nev.) for refusing to endorse Rick Weiland, a former Daschle aide who is running for the South Dakota seat held by retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D). 

Reid last year declared Weiland was “not my choice” in the race, and this summer added, “We are going to lose in South Dakota, more than likely.”

Asked if those comments hurt Weiland’s chances, Daschle told The Hill, “Well, it certainly hasn’t helped.”

{mosads}Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, fired back on Monday: “It’s sad that Sen. Daschle is working against Senate Democrats’ interests rather than working to preserve the Democratic majority that Sen. Reid restored.”

The dispute between Reid, who succeeded Daschle as the Senate’s top Democrat, is highly unusual. It is also rare for a Democratic leader to withhold support for a Democratic nominee in a Senate race.

Daschle said he urged Reid to back Weiland a few months ago. Pressed on the details of that conversation and why Reid hasn’t endorsed, Daschle responded: “You’ll have to talk to Sen. Reid. I don’t want to be critical. Harry Reid has a job to do and he’s made decisions that he thinks are the correct ones and I’m not going to second-guess him. I hold a different point of view.”

Democratic campaign officials last year tried to convince former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) to run in South Dakota, but she opted against it.

Former South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf admitted that the “relationship between the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] and Rick Weiland didn’t start off strong,” but said that might have been designed to keep the door open for Herseth Sandlin to change her mind.

“That upset them when Weiland jumped in and messed with their timetable,” said Nesselhuf, who is now managing the congressional race for Democrat Jim Mowrer against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

A recent poll showed former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) up 11 points over Weiland, 39 percent to 28 percent. Former GOP Sen. Larry Pressler attracts 25 percent of the vote and ex-state legislator Gordie Howie draws 3 percent. Pressler and Howie are running as independents.

Daschle, who lost his reelection bid in the presidential election year of 2004, said the midterms tend to be friendlier for Democrats in the Dakotas. He said former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) was down 30 points on Labor Day before being elected to the upper chamber. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) was “down a lot more than Rick at this point,” added Daschle, who represented South Dakota in both the House and the Senate.

Weiland, Daschle said, has “an excellent chance” to win. Pressed on the often-repeated assumption that Democrats are going to lose Senate seats in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota, Daschle responded, “A lot of past conventional wisdom is wrong. Ask Eric Cantor.”

Cantor, the former House majority leader, lost his GOP primary against Dave Brat in June.

Weiland does have some support in Washington. Last November, more than 30 Democratic senators, including Johnson, hosted a fundraiser for him. But the name of Michael Bennet (Colo.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was notably missing from the invitation.

In an email on Monday, a DSCC official stated in an email, “The DSCC has endorsed Rick. Rick attended the DSCC’s big retreat on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this year. The DSCC has also conducted polling on Rick’s behalf.”

It’s unclear, however, when the DSCC endorsed Weiland and whether it was publicly announced.

Asked if the DSCC should spend money in South Dakota, Daschle said that’s a “judgment [DSCC] has to make. I think it’s going to prove a very good investment.”

Late last year, Weiland expressed confidence that Reid and the DSCC would eventually warm to his candidacy.

“I think they’ll come around. I think it’s just a matter of time,” he told The Hill at the time.

A Democratic source who requested anonymity said, “The DSCC has private polling showing that Weiland has no chance of winning in any combination of the field, including in a head-to-head matchup against Rounds. He and Sen. Daschle are wasting everyone’s time and resources, including their own.” 

Longtime Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who is a consultant to Weiland, said he remains optimistic that Washington Democrats will help his candidate. Jarding ran Johnson’s 2008 Senate race and was a consultant to former Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) upset win in 2006.

“I know what South Dakota is like, I know the cheap media markets. I believe Harry Reid will do what he did for Jim Webb,” Jarding said. “DSCC will take a look and say, ‘OK, this looks like it’s a winnable race, we don’t have a lot of close races and certainly not a lot of cheap races.’ ”

Weiland supporters say that Rounds has been put on the defensive on a controversial visa program he championed as governor. They also say that with control of the Senate up for grabs, Democrats need to be maximizing their chances in every competitive race.

Daschle said Weiland understood that he needed to prove he could win: “I think over the last several months, he has certainly done that, obviously not to the satisfaction of some in Washington.”

Brook Hougeson, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointed to recent internal GOP polling to argue Weiland doesn’t have a chance: “If Democrats in Washington want to flush money down the toilet by throwing it behind a fringe candidate in a red state down nearly 20 points in lieu of one of the other dozen plus actual competitive races, bless their heart.”

Lincoln County Democratic Party Chairman Ryan Casey, who led the unsuccessful “Draft Brendan Johnson” movement to recruit the retiring senator’s son into the race, was brushed back by national Democrats who wanted the Blue Dog Herseth Sandlin to run.

“It’s understandable why the national Democratic Party needs to pick their horses to run with, but on the other hand, they sit in their ivory tower in Washington, D.C., and they don’t always appreciate the sentiment of active Democrats in the state and what they believe and want in candidates to represent them.”

“In my opinion,” said Casey, “it’s been frankly an unprofessional approach — and kind of pouting, for lack of a better word.”

Tags Eric Cantor Harry Reid Heidi Heitkamp Michael Bennet Tim Johnson

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