Sen. John Thune (R)
Elected: 2004, term expires 2010, 1st term.
Born: Jan. 7, 1961, Pierre .
Home: Sioux Falls.
Education: Biola U., B.A. 1983, U. of SD, M.B.A. 1984.
Family: Married (Kimberley); 2 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1996-2002.
Professional Career: Legis. asst., U.S. Sen. James Abdnor, 1985–87; Special asst., U.S. Small Business Admin., 1987–89; Exec. dir., SD Republican Party, 1989–91; SD railroad dir., 1991–93; Exec. dir., SD Municipal League, 1993–96.
The junior senator from South Dakota is John Thune, a Republican elected in 2004. He grew up in Murdo, on the dusty plains west of the Missouri River, where his father was a teacher and the family was Democratic. He went to college and business school at the University of South Dakota. As a high school freshman, he met U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor, a Republican who spotted Thune at a grocery checkout counter and recalled that he had missed one of six free throws in the basketball game the previous night. They kept in touch, and Thune got a job on then-Sen. Abdnor’s staff in Washington in 1985. He stayed until Abdnor lost the seat to Democrat Tom Daschle. Thune returned to South Dakota in 1989 and, at age 28, became executive director of the state Republican Party. In 1991, he became state railroad director under GOP Gov. George Mickelson, and in 1993 was the director of the state Municipal League. In 1996, Thune entered a race for the state’s open at large seat in the U.S. House as an underdog. The favorite in the Republican primary was Lt. Gov. Carole Hillard. But Thune attracted the support of religious conservatives, and won the primary 59%-41%. In the general election, he faced Democrat Rick Weiland, a former state director for Daschle. Thune opposed all tax increases and promised to serve only three terms. He won 58%-37%. In the House, the conservative Thune was chosen as freshman class representative to the Republican leadership. He was re-elected 75%-25% in 1998, the largest vote margin ever for a statewide candidate in South Dakota.
|John Thune (R)||197,848||(51%)||($14,666,225)|
|Tom Daschle (D)||193,340||(49%)||($19,991,369)|
|John Thune (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 House (73%), 1998 House (75%), 1996 House (58%)
At a White House dinner in April 2001, Republican President George W. Bush urged Thune to challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002. By that time, Daschle had become quite powerful, and in June 2001, rose to majority leader, the top job in the Senate. Daschle pledged to do everything he could to protect his friend and home-state Democratic colleague Johnson and secured for Johnson a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee, where he could bring home federal dollars for South Dakota. Thune argued that the state would be better off with a bipartisan Senate delegation, neglecting to mention that a victory for him would give control of the narrowly divided Senate to the Republicans and knock Daschle from his perch as majority leader and make him a less effective advocate for the state in Washington. Johnson even argued that he and Daschle made a uniquely powerful team. The two candidates spent a record amount for South Dakota—about $6 million each. The national parties and independent groups on both sides spent much more.
Johnson tried to hone an image as a conservative, and emphasized votes he had cast for Bush administration policies. Thune attacked him for voting against making the Bush tax cut permanent. On defense issues, Thune tried to make an issue of Johnson’s opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991, but the impact was mitigated when Johnson announced he would vote for the pending resolution authorizing war in Iraq. He also noted that his son, Brooks Johnson, served with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and could be sent to Iraq, which he later was.
The election was the closest in the nation that year. During most of election night and into the morning, Thune led in the count. Then the last two precincts came in, from Shannon County, which includes most of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and they put Johnson over the top, by a margin of 524 votes—in percentage terms, 50.1%-49.9%. In Shannon County, the vote was 92%-8% for Johnson. In the six main reservation counties, turnout was 11,275, up from 7,500 in 2000, and the six voted 78%-21% for Johnson. Many Republicans urged Thune to contest the election. But on November 13, he said: “The people of South Dakota have been subjected to one of the longest and most expensive campaigns in South Dakota history. I choose not to subject them to more.”
Thune hung out a shingle as a lobbyist and consultant in Washington, biding his time until the next political opportunity came along. His old nemesis Daschle had been re-elected easily in 1992 and 1998, but against lightly funded opponents. The emergence of a narrowly divided Senate controlled by Democrats and a White House in Republican hands made Daschle one of the pivotal figures in American politics. Thune’s favorable ratings remained high after his defeat, and early Republican polls showed Thune 1% to 2% ahead of Daschle—the same kind of dead heat in almost every poll taken during the Johnson-Thune race, and an encouraging sign for Thune. He also could count on the full-throttle support of the Bush White House to match Daschle’s fundraising prowess. And Bush, who carried South Dakota 60%-38% in 2000, would be at the top of the ballot in 2004.
After Democrats lost control of the Senate in the 2002 election, Daschle returned as minority leader and stepped up his criticism of the Bush administration. On March 17, 2003, as Bush was to address the nation that evening announcing a final 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein, Daschle said, “I’m saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war. Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country.” Republicans chastised him for criticizing the president at an inappropriate time. And in January 2004, Thune announced that he would run against Daschle.
Thune sought to portray Daschle as the chief obstructionist to the Bush agenda in the Senate. To underscore the idea, Majority Leader Bill Frist broke with Senate tradition of party leaders refraining from campaigning against each other and traveled to South Dakota to stump for Thune. Daschle began running ads in the summer of 2003, arguing that a freshman senator could not hope to match his influence in Washington and the federal largesse he’d brought to South Dakota. It was the most expensive election of the year, as both national parties and numerous third-party interest groups poured millions of dollars into South Dakota. By the end, they had spent $35 million. Almost nothing was off-limits. The state Republican Party sent a mailer attacking the lobbying practices of Daschle’s wife, Linda, an aviation industry lobbyist. The anti-tax group Club for Growth ran an ad called “Tom’s House” that featured Daschle’s $2 million house in a well-to-do Washington-area neighborhood. Another attack ad showed Daschle as a bobble-head doll, nodding in unison with bobble-head dolls of liberal Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Daschle aired an ad that featured him embracing Bush, which infuriated Republicans, while Thune boasted of his friendship with the then popular president. He contended that Daschle had put his party’s interests ahead of the needs of the state. “He’s not the same guy who put his suitcase in his station wagon and drove the family to Congress in 1978,” Thune told National Journal. “He now is an inside-Washington, D.C., guy who lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion. The broader question is, who is more in touch with South Dakota?”
The closely fought race brought a huge turnout, up 23% from 2000 in a state with only modest growth. Thune won 51%-49%, marking the first defeat for a Senate party leader since Democrat Ernest McFarland of Arizona lost to Republican Barry Goldwater in 1952. The popular vote margin was 4,508—small, but more than eight times the margin by which Thune had lost to Johnson two years earlier. The contours of the vote were similar. Thune narrowly lost Sioux Falls’s Minnehaha County, but won fast-growing Lincoln County by a bigger margin. He carried Mitchell, North Sioux City, Pierre and Rapid City’s Pennington County and the Black Hills counties around it. He also increased his share of the vote significantly in the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations, where his decision not to challenge the election outcome two years earlier may have earned him goodwill. Daschle won most of the counties in eastern South Dakota. Thune was celebrated by Republicans as a giant-killer. He became a talk-show favorite, a fundraising star and a celebrity among GOP freshmen.
Thune established a mostly conservative voting record in the Senate, especially on cultural issues, but he showed some independence. In May 2005, he suffered a setback when Ellsworth Air Force Base, with nearly 4,000 local jobs and one-half of the nation’s B-1 bombers, landed on the base-closing list. He had said during the campaign that a Republican senator with good relations with the Bush administration could better look out for Ellsworth’s interests. Thune turned the initial setback to his favor by showing his independence in taking on the Bush administration. The initial news was “like a death in the family,” he recounted. “In Washington, you can’t count on anybody else to fight your battles.” With home-state colleagues Johnson and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, he put aside the recent bitter partisanship at home, and made his case to the commission, the Pentagon, White House officials, and anybody else with clout about the high cost of closing Ellsworth. They generated a crowd of more than 10,000 and a pep-rally atmosphere when the base-closing commission held a hearing in Rapid City. The base survived. “It is a huge sense of relief,” said Thune.
On other issues, Thune has been a leading critic of the Employment Free Choice Act, a bill sought by labor unions that would make it easier for workers to form unions. He voted against the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement and joined Democrats to increase veterans’ health care funding. He helped to get the Senate to agree to an annual mandate of 8 billion gallons of ethanol production by 2012, and he voiced concern in March 2007 when Bush visited Brazil to promote ethanol in that nation. Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi tapped him as his chief deputy whip. In 2007, he helped author a section of the farm bill establishing a permanent disaster program to provide financial aid to farmers whose crops are harmed by natural disasters. He also successfully fought for the inclusion of a provision creating financial incentives for manufacturers that produce cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass, which is abundant in South Dakota. As gas prices climbed in the summer of 2008, Thune helped form a bipartisan group of senators with the goal of producing legislation to lower prices. The original group had 10 members, but its ranks swelled as gas prices became a pertinent campaign issue in the fall of 2008. The group pushed to allow more drilling off the coasts of some states, arousing national interest in the issue. Both houses of Congress allowed a ban on offshore drilling to expire in October 2008.
Thune was one of the first Senate Republicans to endorse Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and he was mentioned as a possible running mate after McCain won the party’s nomination. Thune moved up the GOP leadership ladder in June 2009, when he became Republican Policy Committee chairman, putting him charge of generating the Republican position on issues. He replaced Nevada Sen. John Ensign after Ensign confessed to an extramarital affair with the wife of his chief of staff and stepped down from the leadership post.
Thune’s legislative savvy, good looks and relative young age have made him an attractive spokesman for the Republicans on the Sunday morning talk shows. He is also one of the Senate’s best basketball players, and he finished first among Senate runners in an annual charity three-mile run for lawmakers and the media in Washington.