SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, an 18-year veteran of the Senate, yesterday conceded defeat to Republican John Thune, the biggest upset of the congressional elections and a key victory for Republicans.
“I have a profound respect for the people of our state, and I respect their decision,” Mr. Daschle told a roomful of sometimes-tearful supporters, friends and family members yesterday. He conceded “This is a difficult morning,” but wished Mr. Thune well and promised to continue working for South Dakota, and urged supporters to do the same.
“I’m here to say this morning that our work is not done,” said the Democrat, who first represented South Dakota in the House in 1978 and who has led Senate Democrats since 1994.
Mr. Daschle, the first Senate leader in 52 years to be ousted, received 49 percent of the vote to Mr. Thune’s 51 percent, a difference of about 4,500 votes.
Mr. Thune accepted his new post in the wee hours of yesterday morning, after Mr. Daschle called to privately congratulate him on his win.
“Today, the voters of South Dakota spoke, and I am enormously grateful that they have given me the opportunity to serve as their next United States senator,” Mr. Thune, a former congressman, told a cheering crowd of supporters.
Republicans placed a bull’s-eye on Mr. Daschle not only to add a Senate seat to their majority, but to oust the Senate Democratic leader they say has blocked so much of their agenda and so many of President Bush’s judicial nominees.
The young, energetic Mr. Thune hammered this point throughout the bruising, hard-hitting and expensive campaign.
“What this shows is there’s a political price to be paid for obstruction in the United States Senate,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who has battled Mr. Daschle over Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees.
Observers agreed Republicans had a much stronger ground operation this time around than in 2002, when Mr. Thune challenged the state’s other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson, and lost by just 524 votes.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Thune was helped over the finish line by a big turnout of Christian conservatives, evangelicals and Catholics, who were convinced Mr. Daschle was not with them on issues such as abortion and traditional marriage, said Bill Richardson, a political-science professor at the University of South Dakota.
Many on both sides said there is a definite reluctance among South Dakotans to send a senator back to Washington for a fourth term — both Sen. George McGovern, a Democrat, and Sen. Larry Pressler, a Republican, were defeated here as they sought their fourth Senate terms, as was Mr. Daschle.
“It seems like we have this mentality in Senate races that when someone is there for a while, we have to kick them out,” said Bob Stevens, a Daschle supporter from Sioux Falls.
South Dakota political analyst and independent pollster Jim Meader said the state isn’t so much conservative as it is populist — voters here want their lawmakers to have a strong personal connection to the state and its people, and if they feel that is lacking, they will act. Voters rebelled against Mr. McGovern, for instance, after learning he no longer held a South Dakota driver’s license, Mr. Meader and other state observers noted.
Notably, as Mr. Daschle’s numbers got worse election night, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth was able to beat her Republican challenger 53 percent to 46 percent and get about 14,000 more votes than Mr. Daschle did. Because South Dakota has just one House seat, Miss Herseth also ran statewide.
Mr. Meader said Miss Herseth was able to connect with voters and come off as someone with deep South Dakota ties, while Mr. Thune somewhat successfully painted Mr. Daschle as an East Coast liberal who had become more like New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“As de facto leader of the party, he had to promote issues that I think he knew were going to be unpopular in South Dakota,” Mr. Meader said, noting Mr. Daschle was “walking a fine line.”
Mr. Thune yesterday profusely thanked his political mentor and former boss, former Republican Sen. Jim Abdnor, who was on stage with him at the victory rally.
Mr. Thune, as a young Senate aide, had watched as Mr. Abdnor lost his Senate seat to another fresh-faced, energetic young politician 18 years ago: Mr. Daschle.
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