Both Parties Feel Base Closings' Political Fallout South Dakota's freshman senator ran against incumbent Tom Daschle on promises of preserving jobs at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Now the facility is on a base closure commission's shutdown list. In the latest Pennsylvania Avenue column, Brian Naylor looks at the political realities facing lawmakers affected by base closures nationwide.
NPR logo Both Parties Feel Base Closings' Political Fallout

Both Parties Feel Base Closings' Political Fallout

In the heat of last year's blistering Senate campaign in South Dakota, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee came to Rapid City to help Republican candidate John Thune.

It was a precedent-breaking visit, because the Democrat in that race was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and by Senate tradition the party leaders do not campaign against each other's re-election in their respective home states. But here was Frist determinedly working to unseat his Democratic counterpart on his home ground, and stressing a local issue to boot.

On that day, Frist stood with Thune in an empty parking lot outside Ellsworth Air Force Base. Frist's message: He and Thune together could work to preserve the base, which provides more than 3,000 civilian and military jobs and is the state's second largest employer.

In fact, Frist promised to work to expand the facility. His promise was reinforced by other Thune supporters. An ad taken out during the campaign by the American Conservative Union's political action committee told voters: "South Dakota's hope of saving Ellsworth Air Force Base rests not on electing the chief opponent of the president, but rather in electing John Thune….Thune will have the ear of the President….A vote for Tom Daschle may well be a vote to close Ellsworth."

Today, barely six months after voters swapped Daschle for Thune, along comes the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). Its task is to trim the roster of military facilities nationwide. Guess what Air Force base in western South Dakota shows up on their shutdown list?

For Thune, a freshman in the Senate, who previously served three terms in the House, it's been a refresher course in the hardball realities of power politics. Thune was nudged into his challenge to Daschle at a White House dinner with President Bush. Now administration officials say the base closings are out of their hands.

Democratic activists in South Dakota have been quick to say I told you so, pointing out that Daschle's successor as Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, will enjoy a net increase in military jobs in his state under the BRAC process.

However betrayed and abandoned Thune may feel, he has little recourse. He and lawmakers from other states slated to lose military facilities are introducing legislation to postpone the proposed closings and seeking other means of redress. But the odds are long against overturning the BRAC recommendations.

So, soon after the BRAC list was announced, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Thune's contention he could protect Ellsworth better than Daschle "turned out to be hollow."

Thune won't face electoral repercussions from Ellsworth's closing right away, of course. He's not up for re-election until 2010. But if the base is closed, the gradual reduction in its workforce will likely hit hardest about then.

For Rep. Rob Simmons, the political dangers are much more immediate. The Republican represents Connecticut's 2nd District, encompassing the eastern part of the state and the New London Submarine Base at Groton. This facility and its 8,000 jobs are also on the BRAC closure list, and Simmons must run again in a year and a half. The three-term incumbent has never received more than 54.2 percent of the vote in a district that leans Democratic.

But it's not clear that even the worst-case scenario at New London would be enough to finish Simmons. Key Connecticut Democrats such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (who represents the adjoining district) are making common cause with their Republican colleague to fight the New London closure.

Something like the same dynamic could help Thune in South Dakota. The rest of the state's congressional delegation, Democrat Tim Johnson in the Senate and Democrat Stephanie Herseth in the House, has circled the wagons much as Democrats have in Connecticut.

Under the right circumstances, a base closing could actually help some incumbents, bringing often-polarized lawmakers together, and giving voters a chance to see them all fighting against the outsiders.