Would Another Thune Senate Bid Amount To a Suicide Mission?

Posted January 24, 2003 at 3:37pm

It isn’t an unreasonable question. Has John Thune (R) lost his mind by considering another Senate race — let alone against Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) — just months after a photo-finish loss to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)?

Nope. I, for one, think he’s perfectly sane. In fact, challenging Daschle in 2004 looks like an entirely reasonable option for Thune. [IMGCAP(1)]

The case against a run by the former at-large Representative is clear. Thune, who turned 42 earlier this month, has plenty of years ahead of him to run again for higher office. By challenging the popular Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader, Thune risks back-to-back losses and a developing reputation as a loser.

If Thune couldn’t beat Johnson, what chance would he have against the more personable and influential Daschle, who already had $1.4 million in the bank at the end of 2002? To make matters worse for the Republican, Daschle has already hired talented former Johnson campaign manager Steve Hildebrand to run his re-election campaign.

But if you consider the dynamic of a possible Daschle-Thune race in 2004, the former GOP House Member may actually have a better chance against the Senate Minority Leader than he did against the more junior Johnson. And it may be hard for Thune to pass up a race next year.

If he doesn’t make another Senate run next year, he’ll have to wait until at least 2008 to run for higher office, when he would be able to take on Johnson again. Republican Gov. Mike Rounds presumably will seek re-election in 2006, so the governorship won’t come open again until at least 2010. And Thune is unlikely to try to reclaim the House seat, whether or not fellow Republican Bill Janklow is still holding it.

So Thune doesn’t have a lot of political options, unless, of course, President Bush rides to the rescue and offers him a spot in his Cabinet.

If Thune does challenge Daschle, the Republican begins with considerable strengths and assets.

He just spent millions of dollars in a Senate race, so he begins with name identification that equals Daschle’s, who has served in statewide office since 1982.

Ironically, Thune’s loss last year made him a stronger challenger to Daschle next year. When the Republican walked away from a 524-vote loss with grace and an apparent lack of bitterness, he no doubt boosted his reputation in the state.

As this newspaper noted last week, Thune’s name ID in a recent poll was 65 percent favorable/28 percent unfavorable, slightly better than Daschle’s. For argument’s sake, assume that their personal numbers are roughly even.

Last year, one of Johnson’s strongest arguments for re-election was that he had the ear of the Senate Majority Leader (Daschle), and that voting for Thune would not only mean Johnson’s defeat but also could mean loss of influence for Daschle, by putting him in the minority. This presumably would hurt South Dakota.

But with Republicans already controlling the Senate, Daschle no longer carries the clout that he did just a few months ago. The Minority Leader surely can and will talk about his work in the Senate for the state and his position of influence on Capitol Hill, but Thune should have an easier time making an effective counter now that Republicans control the Senate.

Finally, and maybe more importantly, Daschle wouldn’t be able to attach himself to Bush the way Johnson did effectively.

Johnson spent a good deal of time portraying himself as a supporter of parts of the president’s agenda. One Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee TV ad produced by GMMB (Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns) featured a voiceover saying “Tim Johnson has strongly supported President Bush, the war against terrorism, his tax cut, and his education reform.” Similar copy rolled across the television screen, and the ad featured a photograph of the president.

“There isn’t one contested, statewide race in the country with a Democrat who ran as far right as Tim Johnson,” asserts one Republican consultant who followed the race closely.

As the Democrats’ point man in the Senate — in a presidential cycle — Daschle will have to lead his party’s attack against the president until Democrats get a presidential nominee. If Bush becomes unpopular in South Dakota (because of the economy or foreign policy), then Daschle’s position would be an asset. But if the president remains popular, Daschle’s leadership position would be a huge liability.

At this point, Thune seems undecided about another Senate race. That’s understandable, since another two-year-long campaign against another popular incumbent can’t strike him (or his wife) as an ideal way to make a living or to spend quality family time.

But the former Congressman probably can afford to wait until much later in 2003 before deciding whether to take on Daschle. And if the president’s political operatives put the heat on Thune again, the Republican may find a 2004 bid hard to resist.