Thune in No Hurry to Announce

Will Decide in December or January on 2004

Posted November 11, 2003 at 6:28pm

Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) is coming under increasing pressure from the two Republican campaign committees to make a decision soon about his political future.

“I am deciding what I want to do long term and how much risk I want to take,” said Thune in an interview Tuesday.

The National Republican Senatorial Campaign and the White House political operation have pushed Thune for months to challenge Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004, and convened a late-October meeting to make another run at him.

NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.), along with committee staff, sat down with Thune, and Allen even took the former Congressman out of the room to speak privately, according to knowledgeable sources.

Thune has also spoken with National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) in the past two weeks about the at-large House race in South Dakota, but he has not yet given any indication of what direction he is leaning.

While Thune has been seen as a near-lock for a Senate race for months, even his closest aides now admit that he is weighing both options equally — and could wind up sitting on the political sidelines altogether in 2004.

“I am not ruling anything out,” said Thune. “I am now giving active consideration to what if anything I want to do politically next year.” Thune said he will decide on his next move by late December or early January.

The House seat is currently held by Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who faces a December trial on second-degree manslaughter charges for an Aug. 16 car accident that left a motorcyclist dead.

Janklow, a former four-term governor, has seen his popularity ratings fall dramatically since the accident; he has not announced a decision on whether he will run for a second term.

Much of the stepped-up pressure on Thune comes in the aftermath of an independent poll released late last week showing Thune trailing Daschle 50 percent to 44 percent; Thune led 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth, who is running again next year, 47 percent to 40 percent in a hypothetical House matchup. In that same survey, Herseth led Janklow by a whopping 57 percent to 29 percent margin.

Mason-Dixon Polling & Media Research Inc. conducted the poll of 400 likely voters from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. It had a 5 percent margin of error.

Daschle’s lead comes after a summer and fall of near-constant advertising that has cost the campaign roughly $500,000, according to manager Steve Hildebrand.

Hildebrand’s staff of 30 campaign workers — including 20 field organizers — have knocked on more than 30,000 doors, conducting a health care survey that was completed at the end of October, and a campaign to sign up voters in rural areas as co-sponsors of ethanol legislation being pushed by Daschle.

“Tom Daschle is as well-prepared as any political operation in America to take on whatever opponent might come at him,” Hildebrand said.

Republicans retorted that despite Daschle’s spending, he has not put the race out of reach.

“Daschle spent $1 million and is not pulling away from Thune,” said NRSC Communications Director Dan Allen. “Thune’s numbers have not changed even though he has not campaigned at all.”

Polling done by Mason-Dixon in late August showed Daschle at 48 percent and Thune at 46 percent.

But a look back at the 2002 Senate race between Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson (D) shows that Daschle is currently in a much stronger position than Johnson was at this time in 2001.

Thune held from a 5-point to 8-point edge over Johnson in both Republican and independent polling, and even Democrats admitted that Johnson was behind for much of 2001 in a state where GOP registration is 10 percent higher than Democratic registration.

Financially, Thune was also in a stronger position last cycle.

By year-end 2001, he had more than $1 million in the bank compared to Johnson’s $1.7 million war chest.

Through September, Daschle had more than $3 million on hand and has repeatedly said he will raise at least $10 million for the race. In his challenge to Johnson, Thune raised and spent roughly $6 million. He has not raised any money for a 2004 race.

Republicans maintain that because of Daschle’s high-profile role as the de facto leader of his party, Thune will have little trouble raising money if he decides to run for Senate. That same financial windfall would not likely be there if he ran for the House.

A Thune Senate bid would also likely benefit from significant third-party spending from groups like the Club for Growth, which ran ads during the August recess attempting to paint Daschle as a Washington, D.C., insider.

The NRSC has no obvious back-up candidates for the Senate race if Thune decides against challenging Daschle, although former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby has expressed an interest.

The House race, meanwhile, is a much less certain venture at this point.

“The House committee is rightfully waiting for Congressman Janklow to make some decisions about his future,” Thune said.

NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti echoed Thune’s comment.

“Right now Mr. Janklow is the incumbent and we are an incumbent-protection committee,” he said.

Although Janklow has made no public pronouncement about his plans, he is widely expected to serve out his current term and retire before the 2004 election.

If Janklow attempted to run for another term, he would likely face a serious Republican primary challenge from elements within the party concerned that he is too politically damaged to defeat Herseth in a general election.

Already state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) has said he would consider challenging Janklow in a primary. Diedrich briefly ran for the seat in 2002 but dropped out of the race when Janklow entered.

Former Sen. Jim Abdnor (R-S.D.) told the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader recently that Janklow should announce his retirement soon.

“The way people feel toward him, he should not be a candidate,” Abdnor said.

If Janklow does step aside, many Republicans see Thune as the only candidate able to beat Herseth.

The daughter and granddaughter of longtime South Dakota politicians, Herseth ran a solid race in 2002 against Janklow, taking 46 percent while raising and spending $1.5 million.

She officially entered the 2004 race Oct. 30, pledging to run regardless of who her opponent is next November.

Clearly, however, Herseth is hoping that either Janklow attempts to stick it out or Thune takes a pass, leaving Republicans to select from second-tier candidates like Diedrich or former state Rep. Barb Everist.

“Regardless of who the candidate is, Stephanie Herseth has a great chance to take the seat in South Dakota,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards.