John Thune wasn’t on the 2014 ballot, but he might be the biggest winner in South Dakota’s post-election landscape.
He quietly stockpiled at least $2.5 million during the two-year fundraising cycle leading up to the election, swelling his campaign account to $9.5 million with two more years before a potential re-election bid.
The Republicans’ new majority in the U.S. Senate means Thune will become chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
And he was re-elected this week to the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Conference, which is the No. 3 spot in Senate Republican leadership and is in charge of the conference's national messaging.
Jon Schaff, a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said the 6-foot-4 Thune “seems like he’s 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
Not bad for a guy who was down and out 11 years ago.
It was late 2003, and Thune was barely a year beyond a painfully close loss to incumbent U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat.
The South Dakota Republican Party was reeling not only from the loss of its young star, Thune, but also from the career-ending calamity that befell its dominant leader, Bill Janklow, who resigned his U.S. House seat after causing a fatal traffic accident.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were ascendant. Johnson was beginning another six-year term; up-and-comer Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was about to win a special election for Janklow’s seat to give Democrats control of all three South Dakota congressional positions; and Tom Daschle, leader of the Democrats in both the state and the U.S. Senate, had cranked up his re-election machine with no Republican opponent.
Thune was the only Republican hope against Daschle. He talked it over with his wife and two daughters.
“I remember we were having a discussion around the kitchen table and we actually put it to a secret ballot vote,” Thune said. “The vote was 3-1 in favor, and I was the no vote.”
When the race began, national political commentator Larry Sabato said if Thune lost a second Senate race, “(H)e’s finished.”
“This is his last shot,” Sabato said at the time.
This week, the Journal asked the 53-year-old Thune if he would have stayed in politics following a second Senate loss.
“No, I’d have been done,” Thune said. “Actually, I felt like after the first race, I was probably done with it.”
But he won a race for the ages in which $30 million was spent and only 1.2 percentage points separated him from Daschle. The race so devastated the state Democratic Party that it failed to field a candidate against Thune when his first term ended.
Ten years after Thune broke the Democratic grip on South Dakota's congressional delegation, Republicans now have control of all three seats thanks to Kristi Noem's ouster of Herseth Sandlin in 2010 and Mike Rounds’ successful Nov. 4 bid to succeed the retiring Johnson. Thune, who becomes the state’s senior senator with Johnson’s departure, reportedly played a lead role in Rounds’ win by lending not only advice and time on the campaign trail but also some of his own staffers after polls tightened in early October.
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Schaff disagrees with Sabato’s 2003 prediction and thinks Thune could have come back from a second Senate loss, but if Thune had lost or decided not to run, South Dakota’s political climate would be different today. As it is, Republicans have all 13 statewide offices, and Thune is the face of the state party.
“He is the titanic figure in state politics right now,” Schaff said. “It’s not quite like Bill Janklow, because they’re obviously different personalities, but it’s almost Janklow-esque.”
Despite all the success, Schaff said Thune has no signature legislative achievement like the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 authored by then-Sen. Larry Pressler.
That’s not to say Thune doesn’t have achievements. Schaff said Thune’s biggest success is his role in protecting Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City. Schaff also praised Thune's constituent service efforts and his ability to influence national policy and opinion from his leadership posts.
Thune answered the question about his signature achievement similarly. He mentioned no specific bill authorship. He talked about South Dakota priorities he inserted into bills. Finally, he settled on his advocacy for Ellsworth.
He now is working to expand the Powder River Training Complex, a massive flight zone associated with Ellsworth that Thune said could solidify the base’s future following its near closure in 2005.
The opportunity to add significant national legislation to his resume has now arisen with his committee chairmanship. He already is eyeing a long-term highway bill and a potential fight over regulation of the Internet.
Schaff said the committee chairmanship puts Thune in a powerful political position for two reasons: He can protect South Dakota’s interests in legislation that comes before his committee, which could win him further favor with voters back home; and he’ll have closer contact with the powerful people and groups who deal with the committee and could become campaign donors.
“There’s a reason why members of Congress sometimes spend their entire career trying to work their way up the seniority ladder on a committee,” Schaff said. “Once you’re the chair of a committee, you’ve got your own little fiefdom, and all sorts of benefits come with controlling that fiefdom.”
Schaff said Thune should be careful to avoid the excessive focus on national issues that seemed to hurt Daschle in his loss to Thune. That was perhaps on Thune’s mind when, just one week after the Nov. 4 election, he brought U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to South Dakota to meet with local officials, tour Ellsworth and view a rail project.
Thune’s political skills were evident when Foxx, a Democrat, emerged from their private meeting in Rapid City and sang Thune’s praises to the press.
“You’re lucky here in South Dakota, because (Thune) is known in Washington as a real student of policy, somebody who is very focused on solutions,” Foxx said, “and I’m confident in his capacity as the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that he’s going to be a fantastic chairman who’s going to move the country forward.”
But the committee chairmanship comes with as many challenges as opportunities, including one Thune's already had to address: finding money for a highway bill. When asked about that last week, he tiptoed into a political minefield by acknowledging he’s willing to discuss an increase in the federal gasoline tax.
With thorny issues like that waiting to ensnare him, Thune said he is warning against unrealistic expectations and wants to “underpromise and overdeliver.”
After all, he knows from hard-won experience how quickly political fortunes can turn.
“Nothing lasts forever in this business, and you always have to be prepared,” Thune said. “There’s always another election around the corner.”