Possibility of eventually succeeding McConnell as Senate GOP leader ‘factor’ in Thune’s reelection decision

Sen. John Thune touts GOP victories as ‘response to the Biden agenda’

The South Dakota senator highlighted the Republican victories, suggesting they are a ‘repudiation’ of the Democrats’ big-government approach.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota says the eventual possibility of succeeding longtime Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell in steering Republicans in the chamber was “a factor” in his decision to run for reelection this year.

Thune, who as minority whip is the No. 2-ranking Republican in the Senate, announced on Saturday that he would seek another six-year term in the Senate in order to deliver for South Dakota, emphasizing that he’s “uniquely positioned to get that job done.”

McConnell confirmed on Tuesday that he’ll seek to remain GOP Senate leader after November’s midterms. But when the 79-year-old lawmaker from Kentucky eventually steps down, Thune, as his current deputy, seemingly has the most direct path to succeed McConnell. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 19, 2021. 
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Thune, in an interview Tuesday with Fox News, said that “the possibility perhaps of other leadership opportunities down the road” impacted his 2022 decision. “Potential prospects down the road was a factor as we weighed the question of whether or not to seek another six-year term.” 

The 61-year-old Thune, a former congressman who defeated then-Senate Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004, could have some competition down the road in the race to succeed McConnell. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who served six years as GOP whip, and Sen. Tom Barrasso of Wyoming, the current number-three Senate Republican leader, are also seen as potential contenders.

Thune mulled for nearly a year on whether to run for a fourth term representing South Dakota. He shared that being in the nation’s capital and far from his home state 35-40 weeks a year “presents challenges from a family standpoint, personal standpoint.”

“In the end it came down to this is where you can make a difference and I can’t think of a more important time right now to be in the arena,” he explained. “It was really about that.”

And the senator noted that “my wife is a trooper and believes in what we do, and we came to the conclusion it was the right thing to give the people of South Dakota an opportunity to let us keep going.”

Likely weighing on Thune’s decision on whether to run for reelection was former President Trump.

Thune earned Trump’s ire a year ago for publicly dismissing his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. Trump briefly urged South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a close ally of the former president, to launch a primary challenge against Thune. But Noem dismissed any bid for Senate and is running for reelection as governor.

The senator, who remains very popular in the deep blue state of South Dakota, said that Trump’s past criticism wasn’t a factor in his decision.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota questions U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai as she testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 12, 2021. 
(SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“We work hard in South Dakota, connect with the people in our state and always put their interest first, and I think they appreciate that. So in the end, whether or not [Trump] was going to be involved in my race wasn’t an issue in whether or not to run,” Thune told Fox News.

But Trump remains very popular with Republican voters and extremely influential with many GOP politicians as he continues to play a kingmaker’s role in party politics and repeatedly flirts with making another White House run in 2024.

Thune noted that “the overall political landscape, political environment, that you’re in” weighed on his electoral decision and acknowledged that Trump’s continued dominance within the GOP “plays into the things that we’re going to be able to do around here is certainly a factor.”

But he asked and answered his own question, saying, “Was his potential influence in my race a factor? No.” 

Former President Trump speaks at a rally on Sept. 25, 2021, in Perry, Georgia. 
(Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the two major parties, but Democrats hold a razor-thin majority due to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris through her constitutional duty as president of the chamber. That means Republicans merely need a net gain of one seat to retake the Senate in November’s midterms to regain control of the chamber they lost a year ago when they were narrowly swept in Georgia’s twin Senate runoffs.

Asked if he’ll be crisscrossing the country this year, helping fellow Republicans in Senate elections, Thune said “if it’s helpful. I always tell my colleagues I’ll come out for them or against them, which ever helps them the most. Sometimes in this current political environment, it can be a mixed blessing to have a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate come out in circumstances.”

But he stressed that “I want to help the team. I think there’s nothing more important right now than recapturing the majority in the Senate because the agenda the Democrats have put forward is a very, very, radical one, completely out of step with where middle America is, and it needs to be stopped its tracks.”

Thune briefly considered a run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination before deciding not to launch a campaign.

Could a White House race be in his political future?

Then senator said, “I never rule anything out” but quickly added that “it’s not something at this point that I aspire to.”

Looking to the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, Thune predicted “that we’ll have a candidate emerge that can really take hold out there and speak to the issues that are important to the American people and become a standard-bearer for the Republican Party that will put right-center, conservative solutions on the table to address the challenges and problems the country faces.”

“There’s going to be somebody like that. I don’t expect that to be me,” he noted, adding that it’s “certainly not on my radar screen at the moment.”

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