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Family: Ex-US Sen. Jim Abdnor, South Dakota Republican who ousted George McGovern, dies at 89
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) ' Former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor, the South Dakota Republican who ousted George McGovern from the Senate only to lose his seat after one term to another prominent Democrat, has died. He was 89.
Abdnor, who was a farmer, teacher and World War II veteran before jumping into politics, died Wednesday, his family said in a statement. He had been in hospice care recently.
Despite three decades in public service, Abdnor never quite mastered the art of public speaking and even joked about it in campaign ads. But he served on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and earned a reputation for working hard to help farmers and win South Dakota water projects, including the WEB Rural Water System, and other benefits.
Abdnor, who grew up in the South Dakota ranching town of Kennebec and leased a 4,000-acre ranch nearby during his time in the Senate, once said his many years of riding a tractor helped him represent farmers in Washington.
"I'm a farmer," Abdnor said in 1986. "I've dug more field dirt out of my ears than anyone in Congress. I treasure that heritage."
Abdnor was a four-term congressman when he defeated the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee as McGovern tried to win his fourth Senate term in 1980. Abdnor claimed that the liberal McGovern was out of touch with South Dakota ' saying he couldn't even produce a state driver's license when he applied for a hunting permit.
Abdnor wound up receiving nearly 60 percent of the vote, part of the Republican wave that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House.
The highlight of his career, Abdnor said, was serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee because it helped South Dakota get attention even though the state had only one House member to help its two senators.
"You'd be surprised how these agencies like to talk to people that handle money that might affect them," Abdnor told The Associated Press in 1993. "When you're a small state like South Dakota, it's the only committee as far as I'm concerned when you only have two or three people representing you."
Abdnor survived a bruising Republican primary challenge while seeking re-election in 1986 by then-Gov. William Janklow, who called Abdnor a weak candidate and cited his lack of speaking skills. The senator embraced the criticism with humor, saying in a television ad: "So I'm not a great speaker. Heck, I'm not a great dancer either, but I'm a great fighter for South Dakota."
But he was defeated in the general election by then-U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle, who went on to serve three terms in the Senate before narrowly losing in 2004 to former Rep. John Thune, who considered Abdnor his mentor. Thune, an assistant to Abdnor during his Senate days, credited him for his own interest in politics.
"Jim Abdnor was one of the most decent people to ever serve South Dakota in public life and was a great inspiration to me toward public service," Thune, now a second-term U.S. senator, said shortly before he was sworn into office in 2005.
When Abdnor lost his Senate seat, Reagan appointed him head of the U.S. Small Business Administration and he held the post for two years.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole praised Abdnor shortly before he took on the job in 1987, saying: "It is Jim's commitment and understanding of small-town America, of small businesses, its special needs and concerns, that makes his nomination so right."
After leaving Washington, Abdnor lived alternately between homes in South Dakota in Kennebec and Rapid City and spent winters in recent years in Florida ' though he always considered Kennebec, the central South Dakota ranching town where he grew up, as his home. He leased his 4,000-acre ranch near Kennebec while serving in the Senate.
"Kennebec is a little quieter than Rapid City. The streets were empty at 8 o'clock at night. It was quite an adjustment after living in Washington since 1972," he said in a 1993 interview.
Abdnor moved from Rapid City to a retirement facility in Sioux Falls in 2003, but spent winters in Fort Myers, Fla., where he played golf and went to spring training baseball games. He moved to assisted living in late 2010.
He was born in 1923, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska in 1945, and then taught school at Kennebec and Presho before becoming a farmer. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He never married.
Abdnor was elected to the South Dakota Senate in 1956, serving six terms in the Legislature. He then was elected lieutenant governor in 1968, filling that position until 1971. Before becoming a state senator, he had worked as an assistant clerk in the state House.
Abdnor donated his congressional papers to the South Dakota Archives in 1993.
A brother and sister preceded him in death, but nieces and nephews scattered across the country regularly visited him in Sioux Falls.