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Senate GOP: Freshman Thune Eyes Leadership Role

The man who knocked off the most powerful Democratic senator in the 2004 elections appears to be well-positioned to run for chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee following this year's midterm elections.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota
Sen. Thune could join the GOP leadership team next year. (Reuters File Photo)

Sen. John Thune (S.D.) has said several of his colleagues have approached him about seeking the job and it is something that interests him. "It's something I will give consideration to,"  Thune said in December. "I want to be helpful as much as I can."

Taking on leadership of the NRSC would be a boost into the party leadership that would further solidify Thune's credentials as a rising GOP star.

Much of Thune's strength comes from a solid fundraising performance over the past year. Thune raised $1.1 million in his Heartland Values political action committee, which he formed in January 2005.  The PAC retained $458,000 on hand as of the end of 2005, according to a Republican aide familiar with the campaign's FEC report. Thune also had nearly 10,000 individual donors to Heartland Values in its first year of existence.

During 2005, Thune donated to Sens. John Ensign (Nev.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Jim Talent (Mo.), George Allen (Va.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.). He also gave to GOP Senate candidates in New Jersey, Washington, Minnesota and Maryland. To top it off, Thune gave $15,000 to the NRSC.

Thune's fundraising success is not terribly surprising given the national profile he built during his 2004 contest against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).  In less than one year, Thune raised $15 million with a national fundraising network built around Republicans' distaste for Daschle -- an effective leader who helped win back a majority for Senate Democrats for the 17 months prior to the 2002 midterms.

Thune beat Daschle 51 percent to 49 percent, the first candidate to knock off a sitting Senate leader since Ernest McFarland fell to Barry Goldwater in 1952. Because of that victory, Thune is viewed as a hero within GOP Senate Conference. He also gets high marks from consultants and strategists who have worked with him either in the House or the Senate.

Thune also is likely to benefit from the fact that the other potential NRSC candidates cannot seek the post next cycle. North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), the current NRSC chairwoman, is up for reelection in 2008 and by conference rules is barred from standing for a second term at the committee. Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), who lost the NRSC chairmanship by one vote to Dole in Dec. 2004, is also running for reelection in 2008.

Should Thune ascend to the NRSC chairmanship next cycle, expect the talk of a potential presidential candidacy to begin in earnest.  Thune is already mentioned in some circles as a serious vice presidential pick depending on who ultimately wins the GOP nomination in 2008.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 30, 2006; 4:10 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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