John Thune has so much campaign money socked away that he now makes more from interest and dividends than some other politicians collect from donors.
Thune is a Republican U.S. senator from South Dakota. His Friends of John Thune campaign committee held $11.37 million at the end of September, according to mandatory public reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
An undisclosed portion of the committee’s money is invested in securities. During the July-through-September quarterly reporting period, the securities generated $151,129.72 of interest and dividends for Thune, who does not face re-election until 2022.
Meanwhile, during that same quarter, two leading Republican U.S. House candidates from South Dakota who are raising money for next year’s primary election collected less than $150,000 apiece. They are Shantel Krebs, who reported raising about $133,000 during the quarter, and Dusty Johnson, who reported raising about $118,000.
Thune has been investing campaign funds since 2004 in a professionally managed portfolio of securities that includes certificates of deposit, bonds, mutual funds and money-market accounts, said Ryan Nelson, Thune’s chief of staff.
“Because of the amount and because of the success of the stock market the last 11 months, there have been some very nice returns on it,” Nelson said in a Journal phone interview.
Besides growing his campaign account through investments, Thune has continued to bring in new money, including about $185,000 in contributions during the July-through-September quarter. Total receipts into his committee so far this calendar year are $1.12 million.
The $11.37 million balance held by Thune's committee exceeds not only the amounts held by other South Dakota politicians but also most national politicians. The only federal candidate committees with more money at the end of September than Friends of John Thune were the committees of President Donald Trump, with $18 million, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., with $12.85 million.
Additionally, a political action committee affiliated with Thune, the Heartland Values PAC, had $762,580.73 on hand at the end of its most recent reporting period in June.
Thune’s success as a fundraiser has been aided not only by his own efforts but also by a lack of competitive opponents in his re-election campaigns, and his rise through the ranks of Republican leadership.
After he won his Senate seat with a close and expensive victory over the Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle in 2004, nobody ran against Thune in 2010. In 2016, Thune spent little on his campaign while rolling to a 44 percentage-point win over Democratic challenger Jay Williams.
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“He ran against literally nobody and effectively nobody,” said Jon Schaff, political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen.
Along the way, Thune has risen to the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Conference, a position considered to be third in rank among Senate Republicans. He has also risen to the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Those influential posts have helped Thune attract campaign contributions on a national scale, said Emily Wanless, assistant professor of government and international affairs/political science at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
“He’s in a position where people would like to align themselves with him,” Wanless said, “especially given his leadership position in the Senate.”
Schaff said Thune could probably quit raising money and still have enough for his next two re-election campaigns. It’s therefore probable, Schaff said, that Thune is eyeing a higher prize such as the leadership of the Senate Republicans and is using his campaign money to shore up support for an eventual promotion.
There was some evidence of that last year, when Thune contributed $2 million from his candidate committee to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to help other Republicans win election to the Senate.
“The ability to fundraise for other people allows you to build up a storehouse of favors,” Schaff said, “and when you want to get into the leadership job, you can cash that in.”
In an interview last month for the Journal's Mount Podmore political podcast, Thune said he is not currently seeking the leadership job but also indicated he would not decline it if the opportunity arose.
"Being the leader in the Senate is like herding cats or nailing Jell-O to a tree or something," Thune said. "It's hard. It's really a hard job."
"It's not something I've ever aspired to," he continued. "I've kind of felt like in my political life that if there are opportunities that come along and I think I can make a contribution or have an impact in some way, then I certainly don't close doors to that. But it's not a job I'm aspiring to."