Less than ten years ago, a Democrat from South Dakota ran the US Senate.  Just six years ago, Tom Daschle still led Senate Democrats as minority leader.  Now, in 2010, South Dakota Democrats won’t even present a candidate to run against the man who unseated Daschle in one of the strangest and most total collapses in political history.  My friend Dr. Eric Ostermeier at Smart Politics tries to make sense of the situation:

While South Dakota has long been a Republican stronghold in state politics and presidential elections, the Democratic Party has performed quite competitively in the Mount Rushmore State in Congressional races for several decades.

However, in what can only be described as an embarrassment for Democrats, the Party’s failure to field a candidate in the U.S. Senate contest against 1-term GOP incumbent John Thune marks the first time in 34 contests since popular vote U.S. Senate elections were introduced in 1914 that a Democratic candidate has failed to appear on the ballot in South Dakota. …

Smart Politics analyzed more than 1,050 general election U.S. Senate races conducted since the end of World War II, and found there to have been 58 contests in which either the Democratic Party or Republican Party failed to field a candidate. (The 2010 South Dakota Senate race makes 59).

Across these 58 elections, there has never been a greater plunge into oblivion in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from either party than what has happened in South Dakota in 2010 – from the 49.4 percent of the vote tallied by 2004 Democratic nominee Tom Daschle, to being completely off the ballot six years later.

The previous record was held by Virginia Democrats in 2002 when they failed to field a challenger against Republican John Warner, after notching 47.4 percent of the vote with Democrat (and future Senator) Mark Warner six years prior in 1996.

In the case of Virginia, though, there was at least the excuse of facing off against a long-time uncumbent.  John Warner had held the seat since 1979, eventually serving five terms.  He had tremendous popularity and Republicans had the momentum in that election, which means that Democrats in Virginia may have decided to keep their powder dry for better days.

I’d say this is more analogous to Illinois in 2004, although perhaps more in public perception than in reality.  Illinois Republicans haven’t had much strength in decades, but Jack Ryan had a real shot at winning the seat that year — at least until his divorce papers got exposed and the family-values argument disappeared.  Republicans did present a challenger in that election, but only by carpetbagging Alan Keyes into the state to run against some obscure state legislator.  Say, whatever happened to that guy, anyway?

But Thune is a first-term Senator who barely lost against Tim Johnson in 2002 and edged Daschle in 2004.  What happened?  Republicans hold most of the seats in the state legislature, but Democrats compete better for Congressional races.  South Dakota Democrats may have decided, like Virginia did in 2002, that the expense of putting a sacrificial lamb on the ballot simply isn’t worth it.  Be sure to read all of Eric’s historical analysis.