James Abdnor, a Republican congressman from South Dakota who unseated onetime Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern from the U.S. Senate in 1980, died May 16 at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his attorney, Vance Goldammer, who said the senator had “no specific medical condition.”
Sen. Abdnor served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before being swept into the Senate during the Republican renaissance accompanying the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. He was the second Arab-American in the Senate, after his fellow South Dakotan, James Abourezk (D), who was elected in 1972.
In 1980, conservative political groups sought to oust McGovern, a liberal standard-bearer who was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and had wide name recognition throughout the country. Sen. Abdnor, a mild-mannered farmer, said McGovern was out of touch with South Dakotans.
He noted that when McGovern applied for a hunting permit, he couldn’t produce a valid South Dakota driver’s license. He also cited McGovern’s support of abortion rights and other liberal policies.
Spurning an offer to debate McGovern, Sen. Abdnor — by his own admission a poor public speaker — said: “If oratory solved the problems of this country, we wouldn’t have any problems.” He cruised to an easy victory over McGovern, winning more than 58 percent of the vote and helping ensure a Republican majority in the Senate.
During his single term in office, Sen. Abdnor served on the Appropriations Committee and chaired three subcommittees, including the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources. He helped win passage of bills authorizing irrigation and water projects for rural America and generally supported a conservative Republican agenda.
He served one term before he was defeated in 1986 by Democratic challenger Thomas A. Daschle, who later became Senate majority leader.
Ellis James Abdnor was born Feb. 13, 1923, in Kennebec, S.D., a small farming town in the central part of the state. He always went by his middle name.
His father, Sam Abdelnour, was a Lebanese immigrant who came to South Dakota in 1904. He later shortened his name to Abdnor. He worked as a peddler and storekeeper and homesteaded a 160-acre claim.
Sen. Abdnor was a star high school athlete who, after serving in the Army during World War II, played football at the University of Nebraska, from which he graduated in 1945. He was a high school teacher and coach in rural South Dakota in the late 1940s and raised cattle and wheat on a 4,000-acre farm.
“I’m a farmer,” Sen. Abdnor said in 1986. “I’ve dug more field dirt out of my ears than anyone in Congress. I treasure that heritage.”
He began his political career in the 1950s, when he served as chairman of South Dakota’s Young Republicans. He was elected to the state senate in 1956 for the first of six consecutive two-year terms. In 1968, he was elected lieutenant governor.
He lost a primary bid for Congress in 1970 before winning a House seat in 1972.
Sen. Abdnor was known for mentoring many future Republican leaders in the state, including Sen. John Thune (R), a former member of his staff. He served as an adviser during Thune’s successful campaign against Daschle in 2004.
“Everything I know about politics that is good I learned from Jim Abdnor,” Thune said in a statement.
After narrowly losing his Senate seat in 1986, Sen. Abdnor served as administrator of the Small Business Administration from 1987 to 1989. He then retired to Florida and South Dakota, where he was known for attending high school sports events throughout the state.
A lifelong bachelor, Sen. Abdnor had no immediate survivors.