Sen. John Thune has quietly begun seeking the counsel of his closest Senate colleagues and an array of party operatives as he considers a bid for the White House in 2012.
“I’m having a lot of discussions with people whose opinions I value. You try and have as many data points as you can to make a decision like that,” the South Dakota Republican said in a brief interview with Roll Call on Tuesday. “I continue to visit with potential contributors and to visit with people both in my state and around the country.”
Thune acknowledged that his consultations are ongoing and extensive and have included a wide range of Republicans, including fellow Senators, political operatives with previous experience running GOP presidential campaigns, and a national network of financial contributors whose support he would need in order to wage a competitive presidential bid. Thune said he continues to view the prospect of running favorably, although his final decision could still be a few months off.
On the list of Republican Members whose advice Thune is seeking — if he hasn’t spoken with them already — are Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who sought the party’s nomination in 1996 and 2000. Thune is personally close with GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), both conservative favorites, and could discuss the matter with them as well.
Thune was uncontested for re-election on Nov. 2, cruising to a second term six years after defeating then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in a dogfight. As a consequence of the money Thune raised to run his expensive 2004 campaign — and the “giant-killer” status he earned by winning — he quickly developed a national profile and was seen as a potential presidential candidate.
Now a member of the Senate Republican leadership as Policy Committee chairman, Thune is gauging his prospects in the GOP presidential primary and a general election against President Barack Obama. He is attempting to figure out through his consultations whether he has something unique to offer as a candidate, whether he can raise the necessary resources and whether he has a pathway to victory.
“It’s particularly helpful to talk to people who’ve been through it before or people who have good instincts about politics to start with. Those are both resources that I’ve relied on,” he said. “Some of my colleagues are good in terms of input that way as well as some of the people around town and around the country who’ve been through this.”
According to sources, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is among the individuals Thune is likely to consult. The Mississippi Republican is now a lobbyist downtown with Patton Boggs, but the two have a long-standing personal relationship, socializing together with their wives every so often.
McCain said he has spoken with Thune about the prospect of his running in 2012. But McCain downplayed the discussion as very general and among the many such conversations he has with people as a result of his 2008 candidacy. McCain came back to win the GOP nomination after running out of money early, and remained competitive with Obama in the general election until the final weeks of the campaign.
“I’ve said a thousand times: If I looked like John Thune, I’d be president of the United States,” McCain quipped, before adding: “I certainly think he’s a viable candidate, but it’s way too early to start handicapping.”
McCain’s advice to Thune: “Don’t spend your money early.”
DeMint, a darling of the tea party movement who appears to be keeping the door open to a presidential bid of his own, said he and Thune have not discussed the South Dakotan’s potential White House candidacy.
Thune is in leadership and DeMint has staked out ground as a rank-and-file agitator. But their Senate voting records are similarly conservative, and the two Members could be fighting for the same political ground in the GOP presidential primary should both of them run. Still, DeMint said Thune is solidly conservative and has the makings of a good candidate.
“He’s a great guy; a smart guy. I’m sure he’d be a great candidate,” DeMint said. Asked whether he thinks Thune has sufficient conservative credentials to be successful in the primary, DeMint answered: “I’m sure he does.”
DeMint made a splash during the 2010 election cycle by raising and bundling millions of dollars for GOP Senate candidates through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, and he could draw on those relationships in a run for the White House.
Thune’s fundraising activities received less public attention during the fall campaign. But his work on behalf of Republican Senate candidates and the National Republican Senatorial Committee was partially designed to build a base of support within the party to be drawn on in the event that he runs for president.
During the 2010 cycle, Thune attended 34 fundraisers for the NRSC — among the most of all GOP Senators — and was credited with raising $1.7 million for the committee, sixth best in the Conference, according to the NRSC. Throughout the summer and fall, Thune traveled to 13 states to raise money for 13 GOP Senate candidates, including key states such as Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the Republicans he campaigned for won. Thune made six additional trips to the same states on behalf of the NRSC.
Thune conceded Tuesday that part of his decision process over the next few months could include travel to the key primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“He was everywhere this fall, but everywhere without making waves,” one Republican source said.