The discovery of John Thune
For months -- if not years -- the Republican/conservative smart set has been looking for a fresh face on which to hang their hopes and dreams.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune may be that person.
Witness a conventional-wisdom setting column penned over the weekend by the New York Times' David Brooks -- the Fix's favorite conservative commenter -- that touts Thune as the Next Big Thing.
Writes Brooks of Thune:
"He is a gracious and ecumenical legislator, not a combative one. When you ask him to mention authors he likes, he mentions C.S. Lewis and Jeff Shaara, not political polemicists. The first person who told me I had to write a column about Thune was a liberal Democratic senator who really likes the guy."
Brooks casts Thune as the antidote to the ongoing civil war within the GOP between establishment types and the conservative base of the party. "Republican pros are attracted to Thune because he could rally the hard-core conservatives without scaring away the suburbanites," writes Brooks.
The Brooks column comes as Thune is working quietly but clearly to raise his national profile. Having taken over control of the Republican Policy Committee following the decline and fall of Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) over the summer, Thune has become a regular on the cable television circuit -- usually to articulate the conservative point of view on the economy. (In an interview with Fox Business Channel's Neil Cavuto on Monday, Thune called the health care bill a "monstrosity" and vowed to stay in the Senate through the holidays to fight it if necessary.)
And, he is also using his policy perch to fight for core conservative principles within the confines of the Senate. Thune along with Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Mike Johanns of Nebraska plans to unveil legislation to sunset the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) -- a symbol of the sort of government involvement in the private sector that rankles conservatives -- later today.
Although Thune is broadening his national profile, he is clearly mindful of letting his ambitions run away with themselves ala George Allen in 2006. Allen, a Virginia Senator, was widely expected to cruise to re-election that year and was already preparing for a presidential run in 2008; that dual (and dueling) focus led to distraction on the campaign trail for Allen, the "macaca" moment and his eventual defeat at the hands of Sen. Jim Webb.
Hoping to avoid that same fate, Thune is keeping his own re-election race in 2010 front and center despite the fact that the only Democrat mentioned is Matt McGovern whose claim to fame is that he is the grandson of former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern (D). An example of that "2010 first" mentality: Thune has no political travel for other candidates on his schedule, according to his office.
And yet, it's clear that should McGovern take a pass -- the state's filing deadline is March 30 -- Thune has already put the pieces in place to immediately begin planning for a national bid.
First and foremost, Thune has proven himself an able fundraiser despite the lack of a serious race on the horizon. Thune ended September with $5.5 million in the bank, having raised nearly $9 million since defeating then Sen. Tom Daschle (D) in 2004. Thune has raised another $125,000 into his Heartland Values leadership PAC but would almost certainly turn his attention to raising far more -- and doling it out to aspiring candidates -- if he decided to position himself for a presidential run.
Thune's fundraising capability is significantly higher than the average Senator due to his defeat of Daschle in 2004, a race that turned him into a national hero to the conservative right. Thune raised $14.5 million for that contest despite not officially announcing his candidacy until January 2004. A national fundraising presence is an absolute necessity when one considers the tens (hundreds?) of millions it will take to run and win the Republican presidential primary in 2012and Thune begins with at least the skeleton of one.
Thune has also put together a solid core of well-regarded political advisers that could quickly shift from his re-election in 2010 to a presidential run in 2012. That team is led by Justin Brasell who managed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (Ky.) re-election race in 2008.
Brasell is considered among the top campaign managers in the country and wouldn't be biding his time in Sioux Falls if there wasn't at least the possibility that Thune had something larger planned in the future. Thune's consulting team -- Glen Bolger is the pollster, Scott Howell is the media consultant -- is also top-notch.
Does all of the above mean that Thune is running for president in 2012? No. But, it does mean that should he flip the switch to consider such a race, the work he has done -- from a policy, fundraising and staffing perspective -- put him in place to be taken very seriously in a field that remains very much a work in progress.
And, it's why Thune is the Fix's 2012 darkhorse.
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