GOP Veepstakes: Why Thune’s ‘Bland Ambition’ Shines
Business + Economy

GOP Veepstakes: Why Thune’s ‘Bland Ambition’ Shines

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota is not exactly a Republican vice presidential aspirant out of Central Casting.

He doesn’t represent a key battleground state that he could help deliver for Mitt Romney in November. His good looks aside, he would do little to attract independent women to the ticket because of his conservative social views. He offers no exceptional expertise on foreign policy or international economics, as do some of his rivals.

As a white politician from a largely rural upper Midwestern state, Thune has little standing with minorities or union members. And some analysts, political scientist s and historians damn him with faint praise by using terms like low-key, safe and unflappable.

Yet the 51-year-old former House member and political operative is highly articulate and an impressive campaigner who rocked the political world in 2004 by ousting  former Senate Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle with the help of the Bush White House. As a rising star in the Senate Republican leadership ranks, Thune helped bridge differences between his party’s conservative and moderate wings, and occasionally reached out to Democrats. Many experts agree that while he never served as a governor or chief executive, Thune has had enough experience in Congress and government to step in as   president if necessary.

“He basically passes the, ‘Could you see this person as president?’ muster,” said Jon Schaff, a political  science professor at Northern State university in Aberdeen, S.D. “He is capable of making what is basically a partisan or ideological point without sounding partisan and ideological."

For now, at least, Thune seems very much like a second tier contender to become Romney's running mate. There are, after all, bigger names such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Romney camp says that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also being vetted as a possible vice presidential candidate. In April, Rubio signaled that he would decline an opportunity to be vice president even if Romney needed him to compete for the position. 

As a senator from a dyed in the wool red state, Thune doesn’t have a big block of electoral votes he could deliver for Romney, as does Portman or Ryan, for example.

But some political experts argue that Thune’s exceptional political skills, his seemingly spotless political record and his fluidity in articulating and defending the Republicans’ economic and political agenda would greatly strengthen the less sure-footed Romney.

“If the Republican Party was a baseball team, John Thune would be a good utility ballplayer: Put him in any position and he’ll perform well,” Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told The Fiscal Times. “Among all the possible VP picks, he’s probably the one with the least objections. He’s a safe pick. A solid guy. A sterling character, by all accounts. And he wouldn’t overshadow Romney, which is a very big consideration. ”  

“This election is about the economy and the incumbent's performance on that score, as long as Romney doesn't make the election about himself,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “By nature, Romney is vanilla. His ticket should be a double-dip cone of vanilla. …Thune is experienced, careful, mediagenic -- all qualities Romney would like,” Sabato added.

Thune's rugged good looks and political talents have helped him to rise to prominence as a conservative hero after defeating Daschle, who was long a powerful and popular figure in South Dakota politics and an acerbic critic of President George W. Bush. Once he made it to the Senate, Thune demonstrated his political skills by leading a bipartisan effort to block the planned closure of Ellsworth Air Force Base, which was vital to the state’s economy. He then quickly moved through a series of GOP leadership roles and now is positioning himself for a possible spot on the 2012 Republican ticket or a higher post in the Senate leadership.

 Thune was among the earliest prominent Republicans to endorse Romney for president during the bitter GOP primary campaign season, and since then he has been a staunch defender of the former Massachusetts governor’s economic and jobs strategies.  During a meeting with reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, Thune dismissed Obama’s major economic speech in Cleveland last week as a rehash of “the same failed policies” that have kept unemployment above 8 percent for three years and “more blame and more excuses for not getting the job done.”

He told The Fiscal Times that Romney has already laid out a comprehensive 59-point economic plan.  Thune said, “[Romney] wants to take on the issue of tax reform; he wants to take on the issue of entitlement reform; he wants to deal with the federal budget in a way that’s meaningful and doesn’t just kick the can down the road; and he wants to put policies in place – including regulatory policies – to make it less expensive and less difficult for American small businesses to create jobs.”

While other vice presidential aspirants often mince their words when asked if they would  accept an offer to be Romney’s running mate, Thune is more up front about his interest and says he would be open to the possibility. “I’m not seeking it, pursuing it, I don’t aspire to it, I like the job I have,” Thune said. “But I said this – and I tried to say it as sincerely as possible – that obviously you want to make a difference in public life, and if an opportunity comes along, you don’t close that door.”

Born in Pierre, S.D., Thune, grew up in Murdo, on the dusty plains west of the Missouri River, where his father was a teacher and his family was Democratic. He graduated from Biola University in California,  a conservative evangelical institution, in 1983 with a BA in business and earned a master’s in public administration from the University of South Dakota.  From 1985 to 1987, he served as a legislative assistant to his mentor, former U.S. Senator James Abdnor.  When Abdnor lost reelection, he followed him to the U.S. Small Business Administration under the Reagan administration as a special assistant for two years.

Thune served as executive director of the South Dakota Republicans from 1989 to 1991 and then as South Dakota Railroad Director from 1991 to 1993. For the next three years, Thune worked as executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League. He was elected to the House in 1996 and served there through 2004.

Though he lost in a race for the Senate against Democrat Tim Johnson in 2004, for the next two years Thune ran a political action committee, raised a great deal of money and did some lobbying. In 2004 he challenged Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a Senate seat from the Mount Rushmore state and won – the first time in 52 years a sitting U.S. Senate party leader was ousted. Thune then won reelection in 2010. Thune, who lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., is married and has two grown daughters.

While Thune wins kudos from most Republicans for his solid credentials, others aren’t quite so generous with their praise. “John Thune, by his nature and by the positions he’s taken – he’s not the one you go to, to look for solutions,” Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, told USA Today recently. “He’s the one you go to for the Republican position and talking points. He doesn’t know what the word compromise means.”

Nesselhuf added he would advise Democrats across the country to attack Thune for his Washington ties. “I think most [residents of South Dakota] would agree that’s what’s wrong with Washington – too many people [are] unwilling to look for solutions,” he said.

However, others see it differently.

“I always put him in my top three [candidates for VP] – Rob Portman, John Thune, and a governor,” says Republican pollster John Zogby. “With John Thune you get someone with a good image. I don’t think [his work in] Washington hurts him. He fits the ‘do no harm’ [credo]. He’s the tall Anglo with just enough experience, but nothing that at least we know of that rules him out,” says Zogby. “And there’s something obviously robust and athletic about him, because he is robust and athletic – apparently he’s the best basketball player in the Capitol.”