john thune
John Thune

Sen. John Thune has already spent more than $4.6 million on a re-election campaign that doesn’t have an opponent.

Unless, of course, the campaign he is running now is more about a potential presidential bid in 2012 than the foregone conclusion of his U.S. Senate re-election this fall.

Thune, R-S.D., is running unopposed for re-election to his second term, which will make him the first U.S. Senate candidate in state history to win the office without facing a challenger. Yet he is well ahead in campaign spending of both Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and her Republican challenger, state Rep. Kristi Noem of Castlewood in the hotly contested U.S. House race.

Thune’s campaign spending is in part the reality of preparing to defend an elite, typically highly contested seat in the U.S. Senate. But there are other forces at work, as well. And they could involve a run for the White House.

“Obviously, this could be the start of a presidential exploratory effort,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He has options there, and he’s going to leave his doors open.”

Without any clear favorites heading toward the 2012 presidential race, Thune stands as a “potentially credible candidate” for the Republican presidential nomination, Sabato said.

“It’s really a wide open campaign at this point,” he said.

And a review of Thune’s campaign spending records shows a national travel schedule that indicates an outreach to donors and expansion of name recognition well beyond what is needed for a South Dakota Senate race. Expense tabs for Newport Beach and Raleigh and Dallas and West Palm Beach mix with Rapid City and Sioux Falls and White Lake and Huron on Thune’s campaign expense records for the past two years.

The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., keeps a running tally on campaign finance data filed with the Federal Election Commission. The information, available on the center’s OpenSecrets.org website, shows that Thune had raised almost $11.6 million for the 2005-2010 reporting period, through the quarter ending June 30. He had more than $6.9 million in campaign cash on hand and had spent more than $4.6 million through the cycle.

About half of that $4.6 million in spending came in the 18 months leading up to June 30. And it seemed to reflect a strong incumbent who had prepared for a tough challenge in his Senate re-election campaign but also has been considering possibilities beyond that, said Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

“You don’t know what kind of opponent you’re going to draw, so certainly no candidate, Republican or Democrat, wants to end up going to a gun fight with a knife,” Levinthal said. “So you’re going to do everything you can to prepare yourself. And clearly, Thune has prepared himself very well from a dollars-and-cents standpoint.”

Then there’s the 2012 presidential cycle to consider, which requires extensive travel, national networking, fundraising and friend-making on a grand scale.

There are signs of that, as well, in Thune’s campaign spending, particularly in the 2009 and 2010 reports, Levinthal said.

“In those calendar years, Thune has spent about $1 million on administrative costs, staff, other office-type expenses, a good deal on media and fundraising, a lot of campaign expenses,” he said. “So he’s been spending perhaps more aggressively than one would think for a candidate who is effectively unopposed.”

Thune is accustomed to playing with big numbers in campaigns. He spent almost $7 million in a near-miss loss to Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., in 2002, before spending almost $15 million to defeat former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in 2004.

With about $7 million in the bank at the end of June, more coming in and no opposition this fall, Thune is in a position to look at the presidential race. But he must do so carefully in a state where voters have thrown out noted senators like Daschle, George McGovern and Larry Pressler after three terms.

Bob Burns, a retired professor of political science at South Dakota State University in Brookings, said he was recently contacted by Congressional Quarterly to discuss Thune’s interest in a presidential run. Burns told CQ that Thune was playing it smart.

“My statement was there may well be something going on inside the beltway and even nationally with regard to his presidential ambitions, but in South Dakota, he’s focusing very wisely on the 2010 Senate re-election,” Burns said. “He knows from Senators Pressler, McGovern and Daschle that you can get ahead of yourself, and the tide can turn against you. So I think he’s working very hard to maintain his South Dakota support base.”

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McGovern is remembered for winning the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, then losing badly to Republican Richard Nixon in the general election that fall. Pressler made a short-lived presidential bid in 1979, and Daschle prepared for a run in 2003, before deciding to run again for the Senate.

The various degrees of presidential interest and involvement by the three senators were not in themselves decisive in their eventual defeats at the polls. They were part of an overall impression by some voters that the senators had altered their priorities and lost focus on South Dakota, allegations that all three denied.

Thune’s defeat of Daschle, then the Senate Democratic leader, gave him an immediate level of respect and celebrity within the Republican Party. And he has made quick steps up in Senate leadership roles.

Thune downplays his gains in standing with the GOP, except as they allow him to be more effective for South Dakota. And he deflects when asked about 2012.

“I’m focused on 2010, my re-election and serving South Dakota,” he said in a previous interview.

Such wise political replies don’t take him off a short list of likely presidential candidates, however.

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“My goodness, he has to be one of five or six, or maybe 10 -- but it’s a pretty short list -- of Republican candidates out there,” Burns said.

Thune campaign manager Justin Brasell makes sure that reporters know he’s managing a U.S. Senate campaign, not building the base for a Thune presidential run. When asked what his plans are after Nov. 2, Brasell gives a Thune-like response.

“I have not discussed anything beyond Election Day with Sen. Thune,” he said.

Brasell points out that Thune’s campaign fundraising and spending numbers are for an entire election cycle, with emphasis on the last year in preparation for a contested race. Even without a challenger, Thune makes campaign stops and appearances. And Brasell said he coordinates Thune’s “non-government travel and events, including activities like parades, where we recruit volunteers to participate. We run an active campaign website and social network. We receive a lot of campaign-focused correspondence, which we answer.”

Brasell also oversees the fundraising and spending process and FEC reports.

Thune’s travel schedule includes many out-of-state events, some of which include helping other Republican candidates. Those stops also help Thune by building more national name recognition, meeting important donors and making friends within Congress and the party, Levinthal said.

“If you are strongly rumored to be strongly considering a presidential run in 2012, it certainly doesn’t hurt your cause to get around a little bit and to spread your wealth around in an otherwise stealthy campaign for an office you may or may not seek,” Levinthal said.

One of Thune’s campaign expenses that Levinthal noted in particular was a total of $82,800 for advertising on Facebook, a popular social-networking website.

“You wouldn’t have seen that on 2004 campaign finance reports,” Levinthal said. “Now, along with the car rentals and restaurant bills and direct marketing and campaign staff expenses, you see some other things, like Facebook, that are reflective of the times.”

They might also be reflective of a secure Senate incumbent who is considering other possibilities in 2012.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com


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