Murdo, South Dakota
John Thune leaned forward, peered out of the small window in the 9-seat King Air 200, extended his index finger, and smiled.
“That’s the Murdo airport right there.”
We’d been flying over the plains of the senator’s home state of South Dakota for about 45 minutes, and the rapidly approaching ground was green and relatively flat—much of it carved into precision-cut rectangles, like football fields for giants. There was a small cluster of buildings in the distance where two freeways crossed.
But no airport.
Thune once again looked out. “We used to run track on that airstrip,” he said. And there, finally, a short distance south of the intersection, was a long strip of pavement in the middle of a field that was itself in the middle of fields that stretched for miles to the south, the east, and the west. Although formally named the Murdo Municipal Airport, it is not an airport as most people understand the term. It’s more like a long driveway from nowhere to nowhere. The airstrip is used an average of 38 times each month. Pilots are warned to watch for wildlife on the runway.
Thune had spent much of the flight chatting with aides, affixing his signature to dozens of letters with his name and office embossed in red-white-and-blue across the top. The first leg of the trip had taken us from his home in Sioux Falls to the Rosebud Indian reservation, where he met with tribal leaders to discuss law enforcement. The reservation is a depressing place. With unemployment at almost 85 percent, despair is pervasive. Thune has concentrated his efforts on funding a law enforcement approach based on the “broken windows” theory of policing that has proven successful in communities across the country. It seems to be working slowly here. Still, it’s hoping against history. Now, as he approaches his hometown, Thune is relaxed.
“We used to run 2.2 miles from school to the airport and then we’d start practice,” Thune said, in an entirely believable modern version of the walked-uphill-through-snow tales of youthful hardship. Thune and his teammates would wait at one end of the airstrip as their coach walked to the other end to give them the signal. But when their coach—Jerry Applebee—had his back turned, they’d all shuffle forward as fast as their feet would take them to get a little head start.
Thune stays in touch with “Coach App,” who was waiting in his brand new Ford F-150 to pick Thune up when our plane arrived. After a firm handshake, Thune told the coach, now retired, about our conversation.
“I was telling these guys how when you used to go way down to one end, we’d sneak up when you weren’t looking,” Thune said.
Coach App looked genuinely surprised. “You did?”
Thune laughed an easy laugh. “I never told you that?”
It’s a short drive into town. A green sign announces that Murdo’s population is 679—or at least it was at the last census. It is the seat of Jones County, where there is close to one square mile for each of the 1,193 residents.
This is where John Thune spent the first 18 years of his life. “When I was growing up, my horizons—the world—kind of began and ended at the city limits of Murdo.” It’s a bigger world now.
John Thune is likely to run for president in 2012. If he wins the nomination, it will be because he is an exceptionally skilled retail politician who can communicate a kind of midwestern, common sense conservatism that is ascendant in reaction to liberal profligacy. It will be because of skills and values he learned in Murdo.
It also helps that he’s cultivated the nationwide donor base that gave him $14.5 million to defeat Tom Daschle in 2004. And that South Dakota borders Iowa. And that he’s good on television. And that he’s a devout Christian who can quote Scripture without seeming to proselytize.
“I think he’s the complete package and is the kind of person who could conceivably go the distance in a race for the presidency,” says Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “I think he’s an extraordinary talent, and I hope that he will run and win.”
But there are many obstacles. He has virtually no national profile. He worked briefly as a lobbyist. He voted for TARP. He is a defender of earmarks. He would be running against Washington from Washington.
Several people close to the senator say they would be surprised if he chose not to run, and Thune allows that he’s thinking about it seriously enough that he’s gamed out his “pathway to get there,” calculated the amount of money it would take to be competitive in early primaries, and even thought about the timing of an announcement. He thinks his family would be on board. “I’m taking a very full look at it,” he says.
And why not. The Republican field is wide open. And Obama is vulnerable.
Thune is a tough critic of the president. He says Obama is “out of his element” on national security issues and the war on terror, and “doesn’t get” America’s history of economic freedom. “I think that is why a lot of Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about his leadership and his overall philosophy of what America could and should be in the next decade and this century.”
I spent time with Thune in a variety of settings over the course of several weeks this summer, both in Washington and in South Dakota. And regardless of the situation—in meetings with the military on Capitol Hill, at a political fundraiser in a wealthy Washington suburb, eating French toast at his home in Sioux Falls, touring jails on an Indian reservation, talking to farmers at Dakota-Fest, chatting with his staff over dinner, meeting with GOP activists at a county fair—he was always the same guy. That is a rare quality in today’s crop of national elected officials. He does not appeal to blue collar voters one day and disparage them the next as clinging to their guns and their religion.
On July 28, Thune made the short trip from Capitol Hill to suburban McLean, where he was the speaker at a fundraiser for the Virginia Republican party. Prospective presidential candidates spend a lot of their time doing precisely this kind of event, and Thune’s calendar over the late summer was filled with them. He went to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Arkansas, and California, among others.
The senator arrived in a tan Ford explorer at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner a few minutes before his scheduled appearance. He walked into the lobby wearing a black pinstriped suit, a crisply pressed white shirt, and a solid red tie. His hair, parted on the right, was neatly combed to the side, held in place by a hair product that keeps it looking slightly wet for hours.
After some small talk about football in the lobby, he heads to the reception. Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Virginia GOP, greets him outside the small meeting room and introduces himself. The two men chit-chat—Thune once served as the executive director of the South Dakota Republican party—and then the senator joins the growing beer-and-wine reception.
He is masterful in such settings, greeting contributors with exactly the right level of enthusiasm—conveying interest in the new acquaintance but without the cloying obsequiousness of overeager vote-seekers. Thune is smooth, but not slick. He’s the Ernie Els of politics, the Big Easy.
Thune slips into the middle of a conversation, introducing himself unobtrusively. “I’m John,” he says and then listens for a couple of minutes as the discussants explain what’s wrong with politics today. When another man approaches to greet him, Thune steps back, extends an arm to guide him into the previously closed circle, and glances at his nametag. “Daniel, how are you?” It doesn’t come off as forced or fake, but easy and natural.
After 20 minutes mingling with Virginia Republicans—who paid $500 each for the opportunity—it is Thune’s turn to speak. “Can you all hear me if I stand right here?” Thune says, positioning himself in front of the podium. He slides his hands in his pockets and begins his speech with a story about his greatest political triumph.
It was 2003, shortly after he had lost his challenge to South Dakota senator Tim Johnson by 524 votes and at a time when he was contemplating a challenge to then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. “I was sitting with my wife, Kimberley, and I told her that I’m not going to go through another campaign unless God himself walks through that door,” he said. “And that’s not likely.”
God, he explained, did not show up. “But George Allen walked through that door,” he said to laughter, and the former Virginia senator worked hard to convince Thune to take on Daschle. After a family vote—it was 3-to-1 with the prospective candidate casting the no vote—he agreed to run. Thune took the audience through his David-and-Goliath battle against Daschle and the Washington establishment, concluding with a paean to grassroots activism.
He transitioned to last year’s race for governor in Virginia and suggested that by focusing on a narrow agenda—jobs and the economy—Bob McDonnell’s successful campaign gave Republicans a “good page for us to read for November. We need to stay focused.”
Thune spoke without notes for another 15 minutes on the Republican economic agenda. The first issue: jobs. “We need to be creating jobs. And you don’t do that by expanding government, you do that by expanding the economy.” He decried government ownership of auto manufacturers, insurance companies, and banks.
The second issue: debt. “It took us 232 years and 43 presidents to accumulate $5 trillion in debt. And over the next five years we’ll acquire another $5 trillion. That’s $144,000 in debt per kid, and it will amount to about 40 cents of every dollar.”
To make his point, Thune turned to an unlikely source. “When Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the greatest threat to the United States, he didn’t mention al Qaeda, he didn’t mention Iran’s nuclear program, he didn’t mention Russian spies. He said the greatest threat to the United States is our debt.” Mullen’s comments had raised eyebrows among national security conservatives, but Thune was citing Mullen approvingly.
Thune offered a brief preview of a budget-reform plan he has proposed in Congress and broadened his argument. “Since the Founding, we have believed in American exceptionalism—this idea that America is unique and different. That’s in jeopardy today.” Thune spoke about his roots in the Midwest, his immigrant grandfather, and the American work ethic. “This next generation may be the first that has a lower standard of living than the one that came before. The consequences have never been greater—American exceptionalism is hanging in the balance.”
The audience gave him an enthusiastic response. But in the bathroom immediately after the speech, I ran into John Molen, a Virginia Republican originally from Brooklyn, who volunteered that Thune’s speech was decent, not great. Molen was surprised when I told him that Thune is being discussed as a potential 2012 candidate. “Is he presidential timber? I don’t know. The speech was good, but most of it was boilerplate.”
Jeffrey Fehrman, washing his hands, disagreed. He came to the event specifically to see Thune speak. “Thune is the best,” he said. “He’s smart, he’s articulate—finally a Republican who is articulate. It’s a common sense politics. He just says what a lot of people are thinking. And he looks like a president.”
Fehrman, who works at Integreon, a high-tech consulting firm in Arlington, says he’s the black sheep of his office because he’s an active Republican. When he told his officemates he was coming to the Thune event, it was clear that none of the women had ever heard of the senator. “So I showed the pictures of Thune,” he says, laughing. “And they all said—‘I’d vote for him!’”
Thune gets that a lot. The celebrity website TMZ posted a video of Thune playing basketball under the headline: “Senator Thune: The Right to Bare Massive Arms.” (The intro: “Guess we all know where South Dakota senator John Thune stands on gun control—show them the hell off!”)
The senator doesn’t like attention to his looks, and his staff discourages reporters from mentioning them. But in an age in which presidential campaigns are driven by image, Thune’s looks are highly relevant. He does look like a president.
The driving tour of Murdo takes approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. “As you can see, this is a tourist town,” Thune says. “I mean, it’s not like Disney, but tourists are the lifeblood of our economy.”
Murdo emphasizes its location at the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 83 in the town slogan: “Murdo, SD—The PLACE to Stop.” There are four gas stations. There is a Best Western, the Days Inn Range Country, a Super Eight, and a couple of local motels. You can eat at the Buffalo Bar and Restaurant or at Prairie Pizza or at the Busted Nut Bar, Grill and Garage.
Our first stop in Murdo is Thune’s boyhood home. It sits on a gravel road just three blocks from the main intersection. It’s not “modest,” as the cliché goes. It’s very small—800 square feet excluding the basement.
We enter, and Thune’s parents, Harold and Pat, seem surprised to see us. Thune’s mother rushes over to greet him. “John, you’re getting taller aren’t you?”
“No, Mom, you’re getting shorter,” he says. Clutching both of her shoulders and giving her a quick squeeze he says: “Stand up straight.”
The living room is perhaps 10 paces wide and 5 deep. The kitchen is half that size. The dining room features a table for four and an upright piano. The walls are decorated with photographs of the Thune children and their offspring. The biggest pictures are those of the senator. There’s his official 8x10 Senate portrait next to the television and a picture with President George W. Bush on the wall. In the back hall, on the way to the basement, articles celebrating Thune’s political victories are shellacked onto wooden plaques.
Decorations of that kind would have been impossible when Thune lived in the house, as that hallway doubled as a court for pseudo-basketball. The worn doorframes at either end of the 10-foot hallway still boast holes where Thune and his younger brother, Tim, used to nail coffee cans as makeshift hoops.
Thune is the fourth of five children. His older siblings were born in 4 years, and then there was a 12-year gap before he joined them. “I think I was a bit of a surprise,” he says.
Thune’s grandfather and great uncle came to the United States from Norway in 1906 and, upon being told that Gjelsvik was too difficult for Americans to pronounce, changed their name to Thune after the family farm in Bergen. The two men moved to South Dakota and opened a hardware store. Thune’s father, Harold, played basketball for the University of Minnesota and enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Corps upon graduating in 1942. In a little more than a year Harold was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. A decorated pilot, he was once left for dead by his commanding officer after a fiery accident aboard his ship. After the war, he returned to Murdo, where he helped run the hardware store before going on to teach and coach at the high school. Eventually, like many Murdo residents, Harold Thune made a living in tourism, managing a motel.
Like his father, John Thune excelled at sports. He was the quarterback of the football team, the star of the basketball team, and he ran track (reluctantly) for three of his four years in high school. (At one point, Coach App had to lock him out of the gym in an effort to get Thune to concentrate on track rather than basketball.)
A hand-painted sign at the gymnasium where the Jones County Coyotes play basketball shows that Thune’s record time in the 800 still stands after three decades. The time is recorded as 1:59.7. “It’s a half second off,” says Thune. “It should be 1:59.57 and I’ve got the documents to prove it if anyone ever breaks it.” He smiles to show that he’s joking.
Jerry Applebee was already coaching the track team when he came out of semi-retirement to help coach the high school’s highly regarded basketball team as well, when Thune was a junior. The following year, the team made it to the regional finals, where they lost an opportunity to go to the state tournament on a missed last shot against their rival, the Lyman County Raiders. Coach App had drawn up a play to get Thune the ball, but his long shot clanged off of the back of the rim. Thune, who had made many similar shots over the years, was devastated. He sulked alone in the locker room after the game until Applebee came to get him. “It’s time to get on the bus,” Coach App told him. “And by the way, track starts next week.”
Thune got his start in politics thanks to sports. Representative Jim Abdnor had known Thune’s father and had seen John play basketball at a tournament in Murdo. The younger Thune had converted five of six free throws, but when Abdnor saw him in town later, the congressman said: “I noticed you missed one.” Thune went on to work for Abdnor—on Capitol Hill and in the Small Business Administration under Ronald Reagan—and gradually became interested in politics.
Thune attended Biola University, a small college in Los Angeles,* following his older siblings. In a testimonial on the school’s website, Thune says: “I valued the biblical foundation I got at Biola. I was able to take classes that strengthened my faith and helped me to better understand what I believe and how to, in a practical way, apply my faith in real-world situations. I think God is looking for people who can apply their faith in a very relevant way to their profession. My faith is integral to the decisions I make and the way I conduct myself in public life.”
He met his wife, Kimberley, at Biola, and Thune, a James Bond enthusiast, took her to see For Your Eyes Only. They were married four years later and moved to Washington, D.C.
The Busted Nut is not the only restaurant/garage in town, and after our short visit to Thune’s home, we went to the other—the GTO Diner. The GTO Diner isn’t just a restaurant/garage. It’s a Hallmark card shop, a gas station, a rest stop, and a general store with its own Elvis section (where it’s possible to buy Elvis silhouette steering wheel covers, Elvis floor mats, Elvis mugs, Elvis umbrellas, and even Elvis wine glasses). All of this is part of something known as the Pioneer Auto Show, a sprawling complex that contains plenty of classic cars but also authentic World War II uniforms, an antique gun collection, the “National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame” featuring “the famous Zeithner rocks,” and a collection of “Spheres and Eggs”—think Fabergé—owned by Phyllis Melcher of Platte, South Dakota. Among the signature items is the “original” General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard and a 1976 Harley Davidson once owned by, naturally, Elvis.
The group included Thune, his father, Coach App, and two of Thune’s top staffers—Kyle Downey, his communications director, and Jon Lauck, a Ph.D. and author of three books who serves as a senior adviser based in the state. As Thune ordered the roast beef with gravy, Dave Geisler, the proprietor of the Pioneer Auto Show, sat down at the table. Geisler is a salesman and a character. He greeted everyone who walked by the table and made a special point to welcome everyone he didn’t recognize to the museum, even though none of them had the faintest idea who he was. He gave me his card (twice) and explained to me that he’d been a go-to source for the New York Times and Time magazine, among others, during the epic Thune-Daschle race of 2004. He showed Thune none of the deference often accorded to elected officials. The grilling started as soon as Geisler sat down.
“Is the Tea Party helping or hurting us?” Thune laughed. “That’s an existential question. I think overall it’s helping us.”
“But it’s given us a few clunker candidates, like the one Harry Reid’s facing,” Geisler said.
“Yeah, it’ll be harder for some of our guys to win in a general election, but the energy we’re getting from the Tea Party will help immensely.”
“What are your predictions for November?”
“I’m guessing that we’re not going to win the Senate back—at least not this time. We could definitely get the House back. I’ll say 47 seats.”
Geisler asked about Tom Coburn (Thune likes him), about North Dakota’s “kind of liberal senators” (Thune: “Kind of?”), about the prospects for Iraqi democracy (Thune is optimistic), and about Kristi Noem, the very attractive Republican running for South Dakota’s House seat (Thune likes her, “but not as much as you do, I suspect!”).
Geisler asked direct questions and Thune gave him direct answers. They were the kind of answers I had not gotten in my several attempts to pin Thune down on a presidential bid. I saw an opportunity, so I slipped Geisler a note. “Ask him if he’s running for president.”
He read it silently and then, defeating the purpose, answered it himself. “I’ve not always agreed with John, but he has a great sense of timing, and he’ll know whether to do it or not. You know, Republicans had a lot to do with creating Obama. It was our arrogance and our spending. The feel of America is that they’re just so sick of this whole thing. When he was elected, I thought we might never have another Republican president or Congress. Now, here two years later, and everyone wants to throw them all out.”
Geisler has been giving money to his friend’s campaigns since Thune first ran for Congress in 1996. Thune served three terms as South Dakota’s only member of the House of Representatives, and in 2002 he challenged South Dakota senator Tim Johnson. It was a tough campaign, and although Republicans gained control of the Senate, Thune suffered his narrow loss. Despite signs of vote fraud on Indian reservations, he resisted calls from many Republicans to challenge the results. Thune released a statement saying that putting “South Dakota through a lengthy recount which would not guarantee my victory or fix any irregularities would be painful for the state and unlikely to change the outcome.”
With a slim margin of control in the Senate, Washington Republicans wanted Thune to try again. But doing so would mean challenging the sitting minority leader, Tom Daschle. Thune had begun working as a lobbyist and was not eager to run again after losing such a close election.
But Daschle was vulnerable. He was serving two different constituencies—the relatively conservative voters in South Dakota and the more liberal Democratic establishment in Washington. Daschle had been pulled in opposite directions through the course of his career. Jon Lauck, the professor who would go on to work for Thune, captured the tension in a book he wrote about the race, Daschle vs. Thune: Anatomy of a High-Plains Senate Race. “[Daschle] began his entry into politics as a young liberal activist in the 1960s and early 1970s, then ran as a conservative for Congress in 1978, then took liberal positions as a national party leader, then shifted gears to run as a moderate Democrat in South Dakota in 2004.” Trying to keep everyone happy was proving difficult, particularly on Iraq, agriculture, and energy.
The Bush White House, in particular, wanted Thune to run. A parade of pollsters and strategists paid visits to him to convince him that the race was winnable—some being more honest than others about the difficulties of facing a senator as powerful as Daschle.
The moment Thune decided to run, the race became one of the most closely watched in the country. Daschle spent much of his time explaining away his work in Washington on behalf of national—and far more liberal—Democrats and emphasizing his clout as minority leader. He began television and radio advertising more than a year before voters would actually go to the polls. Thune decided to focus on retail politics to win votes, in part because he knew he could not match Daschle’s resources. One-on-one voter contact is still important in a state like South Dakota, where fewer than 400,000 people vote in a Senate election.
The two men engaged in several debates, and Thune was a strong adversary. He has a reputation as a nice guy, and several people I spoke to about a potential 2012 run worried that he would not be tough enough to challenge Obama. If his eagerness to mix it up with Daschle is any indication, they should not be concerned. Thune makes his points with authority and bolsters his attacks with specific evidence. The first of their head-to-head debates came at DakotaFest in mid-August 2004. DakotaFest is a huge farm equipment show in Mitchell that draws tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers from across the Midwest. It is one of the most important political events in election years.
Daschle and Thune sat on stage at a long table, separated by moderator J.P. Skelly of KORN, a regional radio station that focuses on agriculture. Behind them was a large white sign that read “Gold Country Seed.” In front of each man was a microphone and a milkshake from the dairy exhibitors. Daschle, wearing a red oxford and khaki pants, opened with a statement emphasizing his leadership position in the Senate and his ability to provide federal goodies to residents of the state. Thune, wearing a plaid button-down and jeans with a large, silver belt buckle, spoke more broadly about South Dakota values and his life growing up in the state. The candidates then plunged into agriculture issues, taking questions from local reporters and audience members. One particularly contentious exchange came when an Associated Press reporter asked about country-of-origin labeling for fruit, meat, and vegetables, something widely favored by South Dakota farmers and ranchers.
“As you know, I was in the room when we passed country-of-origin labels,” Daschle said, before explaining that the Bush administration and Republicans had delayed the implementation of the law and accusing Thune of indifference.
The normally reserved Thune responded forcefully. “I worked on that from the time I got to Congress—either sponsoring or cosponsoring mandatory country-of-origin labeling when I was in the United States Congress,” he said with evident anger. “It was the law of the land when I left the Congress. It takes an act of Congress. It takes an act of Congress to delay its implementation. It was delayed this last January.”
Thune then turned the argument back on Daschle. “In the United States Senate, when legislation carrying the delay came to the floor, Tom was only able to find 28 votes to stop it. Now, we can always find the votes to stop judicial nominations or tort reform or energy policy or making the death tax permanent or stopping a vote on things like defining marriage. But when it came time to stop the delay of country-of-origin labeling before the United States Senate, they were only able to find 28 votes.”
In an instant, Daschle’s chief strength, his leadership position, became a liability. It was the argument Thune pounded for the 10 weeks that followed. After the campaigns and third-party groups together spent nearly $40 million, Thune won by 4,508 votes. Overnight, he was a “giant killer,” and exuberant Republicans began to talk about his national prospects.
In the Senate, Thune held a series of low-level Republican leadership positions, and after the adultery scandal involving Senator John Ensign, he was unanimously chosen as the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the fourth-ranking position in the minority leadership.
Despite his proximity to those who craft the Republican agenda, Thune does not have a signature issue—something Thune skeptics point to as a liability for a potential presidential candidate. But McConnell says that Thune’s work in leadership requires him to be a generalist and argues that he has been an important part of leadership.
“He’s been right in the middle of all of these major debates of the last year,” says McConnell. “Every senator has a vote, not every senator has equal influence. John is one of the most influential members of the Senate.”
Thune seems to recognize that even if that description is correct—one of the most influential members of the Senate—it’s a distinction that carries both advantages and disadvantages.
“There’s a taint of Washington right now that you kind of live with,” he says. “I think it goes without saying that people have a very negative view of Washington, and that’s why I think at least in the early going right now there’s more discussion about both current and former governors and people from outside Washington. I think last time Obama proved that you can get past that. I’m not a creature of Washington—I’ve been there now three terms in the House and one term in the Senate—but I’m aware of that.”
Running for president is not a decision to be taken lightly, and it’s clear Thune has given it considerable thought. He talked about a potential Thune for president campaign, and the issues that would drive it, as we traveled from DakotaFest 2010 to the Turner County Fair in Parker in mid-August. He prefaced his comments with a reminder that for the time being he is focused on helping Republican candidates in the 2010 midterms. “The best thing any of us can do to help change the direction of the country is to help elect more Republicans to the Senate.”
Still, he says: “I’m getting a very full look at it. I suppose you try to think what it would look like. One, is it something you want to do. Two, do you think there’s a pathway to get there. And that’s obviously a thought process that involves a lot of other people—your family and whatnot.”
Thune believes that his wife and his daughters, Larissa and Brittany, who encouraged him to challenge Daschle, would support him in a run for president. There are other potential hurdles. “It strikes me that there’s a couple of practical considerations that anybody from a state like South Dakota—if one were interested in doing this—would have to think about. And one is—how do you raise the entry fee? I mean people tell me it’s $30 million minimum to compete in those early states. And we’re not accustomed, I’m not a big—this is not a state where you have a lot of people who can write the big checks or bundlers, like they have in other parts of the country. As you saw, I don’t have family money,” he says with a laugh. “So that’s not an option. And that’s a real consideration, because you don’t want to get out there just with a wish and a prayer. You want to have some idea about how you want to do that.”
I asked the senator about the donor network he developed in his high-profile race in 2004. “That was a race against Daschle, and people were very motivated. We’ve tried to continue to maintain and cultivate that base, and there’s support out there. We have people, I think, who would probably step forward. In $2,400 increments it takes a long way to get to $30 million.”
That’s true, but Thune seems likely to have some high-profile supporters who might help raise the money. “I’ve had a considerable amount of encouragement from some of my colleagues in the Senate and House members,” he said. “The thing you have to discern as a politician, there are always people who have their own agenda and there are people who think they tell you what you want to hear.”
In addition to McConnell, another well-known colleague has been urging him to consider a run. “As he moves into it, he will be viewed as a very strong competitor,” says John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008. “In a very quiet and unobtrusive way, he’s worked his way up the leadership in the Senate. And he did it in a nonflamboyant fashion—exactly what you’d expect of a midwesterner.”
Thune was in the initial group of candidates McCain considered as his running mate, though not a finalist. “He was on the list,” says McCain adviser Mark Salter. “Everyone thought very highly of him, including the candidate.”
McCain has talked with several of the Republicans thinking about running for president. “A lot of people have come to me and I’ve said the same thing to every single one: Check it out,” McCain says. “I’ve encouraged them all. But I’ve also particularly encouraged John.”
While Thune is more likely to run than not, he is in no hurry. He anticipates that several would-be candidates will launch exploratory efforts immediately after the midterms. And although an early start can be helpful raising money and securing staff—signaling to potential supporters that the candidate has moved beyond just thinking about a run—the South Dakota senator won’t likely be among those making a strong push in November. “I think there is such a risk in getting overexposed by being out in these things—these 24/7 campaigns that run for two years nonstop.”
He got a late start in his 2004 race against Daschle, and it worked. And Thune points to Fred Thompson as someone who delayed his entry in 2008 but was nonetheless competitive. “Fred had an opportunity there and he waited until considerably later in the game.”
When Thune mentions that he is a “big fan of many of the potential candidates” on the Republican side, I ask him to get specific. He responds with a laugh.
“I can see why Romney would make sense, why he’s got a good story. Why Pawlenty would make sense—he’s got a different story. The Mitch Daniels, the Haley Barbours, there’s just a number of people. Newt. There isn’t going to be the perfect candidate, obviously, and everybody has strengths and weaknesses.”
When I point out that Thune didn’t mention Sarah Palin, he explains the omission by telling me he’s not sure she’s going to run. “She has a tremendous following and tremendous intensity out there and she would be a very formidable presence in the race. For that matter, so would Mike Huckabee.”
When I visited Thune’s Senate office in July, he had a copy of Romney’s campaign manifesto—No Apology: The Case for American Greatness—under some papers on his desk. Thune hadn’t cracked it but said he intended to. Opposition research? “I think he’s a good guy. I like to learn more about leaders and what makes them tick.”
His enthusiasm for his potential rivals does not extend to Ron Paul. At a rest stop near Mitchell, we pulled up to a beat-up, white Chrysler Voyager minivan with a Ron Paul bumper sticker. “Great, Ron Paul fans from Sioux Falls,” he joked. “Can we wait in the car for a minute?”
Perhaps the most obvious question—and most important—is what issues Thune would run on. To some extent, the question is answered by the times. Republican primary voters and Tea Party activists are most concerned about the broad philosophical questions raised by the massive expansion of the federal government over the past three years. While it’s true that an improvement in the economy would change the dynamics, the current trajectory of the growth of government will remain the same: It’s getting much, much bigger. So candidates who speak most effectively about debt, deficits, government spending, and taxes will be well positioned.
This presents Thune with an opportunity and a challenge. He has a mostly conservative voting record. Last year, National Journal ranked him as the 6th most conservative member of the Senate—behind Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn but ahead of Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions. Thune’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 88. He is better than most at articulating the case for a return to limited government. And Thune makes that case in a common-sense way that draws people in rather than sending them running. McConnell says Thune operates and communicates in a “nonthreatening way. That’s a very important intangible that both Roosevelt and Reagan had.”
But Thune voted for TARP, something anathema to many likely Republican voters. Thune says he doesn’t regret his vote. “I regret how it was used, but I think at the time there was obviously a huge crisis of confidence in this country, and we were being told by all the smart people that you’ve got to do something to restore confidence in the American economic system. And credit markets are frozen and this could lead to a major, major collapse and meltdown, and I was in a position where I felt like I didn’t have any choice.”
But the TARP funds were “misadvertised and misused,” Thune says. The Bush administration sold TARP as a way to rid financial institutions of toxic assets and used the money for entirely different purposes. “They started to take equity positions. And so you had government ownership, which to me is a very different thing. And that’s where this expansion of government and government ownership of private industry I philosophically have big problems with.”
Thune’s vote is a minor obstacle, not an insurmountable one. Much as they may dislike TARP, primary voters seem unlikely to use the vote as some kind of fiscal litmus test. As McConnell argues, many good conservatives voted for TARP. “Paul Ryan voted for TARP,” he says. “So did Tom Coburn. Lots of people who are typically applauded as heroes of the right voted for TARP. You’re going to rule out a whole lot of conservatives if that’s the litmus test for leadership.”
Over the summer, Thune unveiled a proposal to reduce the deficit. His plan, based in part on plans first offered in the middle of the last century, would make several structural and procedural changes to the way the federal government budgets. The budget would be biennial—Congress would be required to appropriate money in odd years and save it in even years, when members of the House have to answer to voters. The White House and Congress would have to agree on a budget rather than operating on different tracks as they do now. Thune’s proposal would also establish a Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction that would be required by law to find spending cuts sufficient to reduce the deficit by 10 percent each year.
Thune’s proposal does not address the entitlement reforms that are what will ultimately stave off bankruptcy, but it’s a start. With zero congressional cosponsors, it seems more intended to open a discussion—and a campaign—than to become law anytime soon.
Thune laid out his proposal in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. The audience was receptive, but when Thune took questions many of them seemed to want to know more. One person asked whether Thune would consider shuttering the Department of Education and returning education policymaking to the states. Thune chuckled and said that while he favored more “oversight” he would not be inclined to make such a dramatic change. Another question pressed Thune about the fact that he still seeks earmarks for South Dakota. Thune responded by explaining that he’d reduced his earmark requests by 57 percent since 2008 and offering a tentative defense of the practice—something that won him no fans in a gathering of movement conservatives.
I asked Thune about this. “Like I said at that deal—and I probably should have left it at that—I have voted for the moratorium. I do think that we ought to take a timeout and figure out how we’re going to deal with this issue.”
The problem isn’t spending, Thune says, but corruption. “There is a correlation between earmarks and corruption. And there are countless examples, unfortunately, in the past few years of people who were trading earmarks for political favors and that sort of thing and also using earmarks to buy votes from particular constituencies.”
He continued: “The people who support earmarks, and there are quite a few of them on the Republican side too, who believe that not doing so enables the Obama administration to decide where the money goes and that the real focus ought to be the topline number. If eliminating earmarks actually reduced spending it would be one thing, but they don’t—once the topline is set then everybody is kind of underneath that trying to figure out how to distribute money and some is done by congressional direction and some is done by formula and some is done through the administration.”
So I asked Thune about that “topline number”—the growing deficit—and the entitlements that are adding to it. He said fixing our entitlement problems will require “bold leadership” from the White House and Congress. Anything specific?
“I’m not sure about that. I think you can, and there are some people out there who have. Paul Ryan gets a lot of credit from conservatives for trying to do something about it. But I tell you what, anybody who has even read his Roadmap now is guilty of endorsing it. We’re seeing that here in the race in South Dakota. So there are a lot of things that he’s put on the table—and I give him a lot of credit for at least stepping up and providing something in specific—but what is probably more important than anything else is having someone in leadership in the White House and in Congress who really is willing to provide the kind of bold leadership that’s necessary. Do you have to provide specifics? Maybe you do when you’re running for office, but obviously the other side is just going to attack that. You have to let the American people know that you’re serious, that this is going to be a priority, and you lead by example, and you get out there on day one and make it clear that this is the most important thing facing our country, as Admiral Mike Mullen said.”
Maybe for now, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the national debt would not be our most urgent national security issue. What if there is another large-scale attack on an American city? Or North Korea’s aggression takes a deadly turn? Or Pakistan implodes? Or Iran gets a bomb?
I asked Thune about the most pressing national security threat—aside from the debt. In the short term, he said, it’s Iran. And he’s worried that we may already be too late. “I’m a little afraid that maybe that situation has gotten too far out of hand already.”
“A nuclear Iran is a very, very serious threat to America’s interests and to America,” Thune said. “And I think the president assumed that when he came into office that all that stuff would just go away because all’s he’s got to do is he could be the great negotiator and people would just sit down and reason, and I think he’s found out otherwise.” Thune says the United States should exhaust all options before turning to a military action. But given a choice between a risky military strike and an Iran with nuclear capability, it’s not a close call.
“There are no good options, but I think the United States has to have on the table the military option. And I think if there is a possibility that we could destroy or take out that nuclear capability by acting sooner rather than later I think it’d be better to act sooner.”
Can John Thune win the Republican nomination? One key question is whether he can capture the enthusiasm, energy, and support of Tea Party conservatives. Thune will be “likeable” and “electable,” but he will not be the aggressive, confrontational conservative that many Tea Party enthusiasts seem to prefer. The very quality that would help him in a general election contest against Barack Obama—a reserved, even cautious rhetorical conservatism—could well limit his appeal to conservatives who prove decisive in choosing the GOP nominee.
Thune may not be one of the first active candidates when the 2012 campaign kicks off on November 3, but he will have a major advantage when he begins to run in earnest: Iowa. Sioux Falls, where Thune lives, is about 10 miles from the Iowa border. (Sioux City, Iowa, is 87 miles away.) Many of the issues that concern South Dakota voters are the same ones that affect voters in Iowa.
If Thune decides to run, he will campaign in Iowa by extending a conversation he’s already having with many of his own constituents. On agriculture, for instance, he knows the issues exceptionally well and talks to ranchers and farmers with an understanding of their concerns. And he speaks with them in their jargon—no small matter. Most of the other candidates—with the notable exception of Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty—will only just be learning the language. Add to that Thune’s facility with small group politics—the kind of campaigning that often proves decisive in the Iowa caucuses—and Thune has the potential to be a first-tier candidate after the first contest of the 2012 race for president. That too would be no small thing.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
*This article incorrectly referred to Biola as a Baptist College. It has been corrected.