GOP Taps Thune to Get Cozy With K St.

Posted January 21, 2009 at 6:40pm

Senate Republicans have tasked Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) with beefing up the party’s outreach to K Street, business groups and grass-roots organizations, hoping to maintain critical alliances built up over eight years of White House control.

“To use a sports analogy, this is a rebuilding season,” Thune said. “It’s time that we focus on the basics as well as get a little bit creative.”

The role of the Conference vice chairman typically has been limited to helping coordinate the GOP Senators’ message on the floor during open-topic speaking hours known as “morning business.” But Thune and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), in consultation with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), decided this year to try to streamline the Conference operation by consolidating the message strategy under Alexander and the outreach efforts under Thune. The Conference chairman previously coordinated outreach.

Thune, a rising star in his first elected leadership role, said the Bush White House had more than a dozen staffers dedicated to selling the party’s agenda to various constituencies, and that his enhanced role is the GOP Conference’s way of “recognizing there was going to be a very big vacuum without the White House there.”

Primarily, Thune said he hopes to create new alliances and fortify old relationships in order to sell the party’s priorities to the masses as it tries to reinvent itself after suffering bruising Congressional losses in the past two election cycles.

Thune said the goal would be to begin “to build what I think is the grass roots again.”

He added, “I see it more as a line of communication where we get feedback and act as a sounding board while communicating with them to build public support for our agenda.”

Congressional Republicans have historically enjoyed strong ties to K Street, built up over their more than a decade in the majority and bolstered by efforts like the K Street Project. Masterminded by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the effort focused on turning downtown into a GOP haven, particularly by pushing out top Democratic lobbyists in favor of Republicans.

In recent years, Democrats have fought back and tried to promote partisan equity on K Street. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in particular has made clear that GOP lobbyists need to do a better job warming up to Democratic priorities now that his party controls Congress.

In his role, Thune said he plans to build bridges not just with traditional GOP constituencies, such as business interests, but also with unlikely allies like women’s groups and minorities. Hispanics, in particular, are viewed as a top target for Republicans since they have become one of the fastest-growing voting blocs in the country.

Alexander said Thune — first elected in 2004, toppling then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — is a “fresh face” that is “best suited for outreach.” The Conference chairman emphasized that the genesis of the change is related directly to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) loss to now-President Barack Obama in November.

“The main thing that came about was the election where we lost the presidency,” Alexander said. “So now Mitch McConnell and Republican Senators are in charge of delivering the [party’s] message.”

Alexander said he wanted to take on the role of running the morning business message shop, so that “what we say on the floor is coordinated.”

Republican hands on K Street welcomed the move, saying Thune is a pragmatic conservative who will be able to appeal to a wide array of GOP-leaning interests from economic conservatives to “values voters” and military hard-liners, to name a few.

Jade West, senior vice president-government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a former Senate leadership aide, said having one GOP leader dedicated to outreach “is very good for us downtown and gives us an access point” to share information and ideas.

She added that Thune’s accessibility and easygoing style will serve him well as he makes the rounds downtown.

“He’s not ideologically right. He’s not ideologically left. He’s a completely mainstream Republican,” West said. “He’s going to be able to talk to people on both sides.”