John McCain's Veepstakes: John Thune

( This is the twelfth Veepstakes article. Already profiled have been Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Maryland Gov. Michael Steele, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. )

Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota who is both a friend and early supporter of John McCain, and is almost always on the speculative “short lists” of possible running mates for McCain, is still frequently spoken of as “the guy who beat Daschle.” In one of those rare campaigns that draw reporters from across the nation and from overseas, Thune — former three-term Republican U.S. representative and the narrow loser of a much-disputed Senate race in ’02 — bounced back in ’04 to take on South Dakota’s most powerful politician, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Thune campaigned hard about how the liberal Daschle was thwarting President Bush’s judicial nominees and tax cuts, making a strong case that Daschle had “gone Washington” and was no longer representative of his state. With Bush’s sweeping South Dakota with 60% of the vote, Thune unseated three-termer Daschle by 51% to 49%, the first time that a sitting majority leader of the Senate was defeated for re-election since Barry Goldwater unseated Senate Democratic Leader Ernest McFarland (D.-Ariz.) back in 1952.

For the onetime high school basketball player and graduate of Biola (Calif..) University, this was the culmination of an adult life spent in the political vineyards. After earning his M.B.A. from the University of South Dakota in 1984, the young Thune joined the Washington staff of Sen. Jim Abdnor (R.-S.D.). After Abdnor’s defeat at the hands of Daschle in 1986, the former senator went to head the Small Business Administration and brought Thune with him as special assistant. Thune returned to his home state in 1989 and began nurturing statewide contacts as executive director of the state Republican Party and later as operating head of the South Dakota Municipal League. When Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson launched his successful bid for the Senate in 1996, Thune made his own move and won the nomination and election to the state’s at-large congressional seat that Johnson had vacated.

During six years in the House, Thune voted a generally conservative line (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 84%). One vote that particularly irked his brethren on the right was for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation in 2001 — a vote the South Dakotan now regrets today. As he explained to me, “I actually thought it would be a good thing if we got some of this money out of campaigns, but all we did was we made matters worse. Money is going to find its way in, and now we’re paying the price for it because all of these 527s are spending millions and millions of dollars on ads attacking Republicans.”

Addressing the Issues — And McCain

Now 47 and four years as a senator (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 87%), Thune, because he is still primarily known as “the guy who beat Daschle.” is cut some slack and forgiven by conservatives on the rare occasion that he strays from the right-of-center path. He voted for the recent very costly farm bill vetoed by President Bush, explaining that “you can’t not be for a farm bill and represent the Midwest and a farm state. It’s designed as a safety net.… I understand that conservatives are critical of the farm bill, but I think at the end of the day we’re going to have one and the thing we want to do is have one that is  as responsible as possible.”

Thune also joined with Senate Democrats to support increased health care for veterans. Most stunning to conservatives, Thune said that although he would vote with Republicans to break the Democratic-run filibuster of the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, he would not support the nomination itself — not because of anything against Bolton but, Thune supporters argued, to keep Ellsworth Air Force base (a major employer in South Dakota) off the chopping block of the base-closing commission. As one Senate staffer explained to me, “John was facing a hit squad on closing Ellsworth and needed to take a hostage: Bolton.” (Ellsworth survived the base-closing, in part thanks to Thune’s efforts. Bolton never got a vote by the full Senate and he eventually withdrew his nomination.)

These days, Thune prefers to talk about energy. As he recalled, “One of the predicates of my election was the fact that Daschle had been holding up a lot of legislation. One piece was the energy bill. So, that was something that I campaigned hard on. The summer after being elected, we passed the energy bill in 2005, and I worked hard on the renewable stuff. I think we’ve got to diversify our energy supply in this country. I realize that we can never replace oils with biofuels, but we can certainly supplement what we’re doing and we have. It’s taken pressure off at the pump and if it weren’t for biofuels, consumers would probably be looking at 50-cents-a-gallon higher gasoline prices today than what we’re seeing. And of course it’s great that the economy of the upper Midwest benefits enormously from that. But we are also on a path to use biomass to transition to the next generation of biofuels. Things like switch-grass, corn cobs, and wood chips will be used to make ethanol and help reduce our nation’s dangerour overdependence on foreign oil.
Has he spoken to McCain on this, or on the Arizonan’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR)?

“I don’t know if I ever talked to him about his position on ANWR,” Thune told me, “But domestic drilling is clearly going to be an issue in this campaign.

And one thing we do need with the Democrats is contrast. John recognizes, as he demonstrated with some of his remarks [recently], that we need more production, that we need more supply. He’s come out in favor of off-shore, deep-sea-type exploration — but he has not been one of the Republicans on the ANWR issue in the past.”

While other Republican office-holders suggest, perhaps hopefully, that the issue of illegal immigration will fade in ’08, Thune addresses it without hesitation. 

“It’s just not going to go away,” he says. “There are some industries where there’s a certain amount of immigrant labor and some of it illegal. But these industries, like the dairy industry, and the service and tourism industries, really want a solution. I guess it was Tom (The World Is Flat) Friedman who described the issue as a big wall with a big gate.— it seems to me that we must figure out a way to keep people from getting here illegally. But to the degree that we need people in the workforce, we must come up with a mechanism that enables them to follow the law and be here legally. And I’m one generation removed from immigrants. My grandfather came here from Norway but did it by the rules. We’ve got to honor that tradition. If we don’t it’s a very slippery slope that we’re on.” Of McCain’s position, Thune says “I think the presidential campaign position he’s basically carved out is one that is consistent with what most of us believe, that you can’t solve any of these issues until you get serious about enforcing the border. And I think he’s in the right spot there.”

Despite differences with McCain on certain issues, the South Dakotan endorsed him for President early on because, after travelling with him overseas, “I saw someone who was extremely well-respected by world leaders, particularly America’s allies around the world. He was admired by our troops and looked up to, which I think is really important. And frankly I think he is more feared by our adversaries than anybody else.”

Would he run on a ticket with McCain? Recalling how he passed on running for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Thune told me: “My answer on that is, I like the job I have. It’s not something I’ve campaigned for and don’t intend to.”