As South Dakota campaigns launch, Thune mulls retirement

FILE - Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7, 2021. South Dakota political candidates are revving into full campaign mode this week, with a massive exception John Thune, who has delayed a reelection announcement as he considers stepping away from his post as the second-ranking Republican in U.S. Senate leadership. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster File) (Carolyn Kaster, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – South Dakota political candidates are revving into full campaign mode this week with one big exception: Republican Sen. John Thune, who has delayed a reelection announcement as he considers retirement.

Thune, a longtime fixture as the state GOP's elder statesman and a likely pick to be the next Senate GOP leader, had indicated he would make a reelection decision over the holidays. But as South Dakota's campaign season officially opened this month with candidates allowed to circulate nominating petitions, Thune has made no indication he's any closer to a decision on seeking a fourth term.

His hesitancy provided further evidence of how serious he is about retiring — a potential development that would upend national GOP politics and create a scramble among South Dakota Republicans to fill the void. With the Senate in session this week — and a campaign announcement not expected until he can travel back to his home state — the waiting will likely last at least several more days.

Thune, who is currently the second-ranking Republican in Senate leadership, told the Black Hills Pioneer during an impromptu interview at a Christian bookstore last month that his wife wanted him to retire. Early in 2021, he said he would likely make a campaign announcement in the fall, but his campaign’s Facebook social media pages have been mostly dormant other than posts of pictures with his grandchildren. At the same time, he has been fielding calls from Republicans in South Dakota and nationwide urging him to run again.

“One has to respect his personal decision, but it would be tragic to lose him in this role at this time,” said Tom Dempster, a former Republican state lawmaker who has remained a close political watcher.

He likened Thune's potential departure to a political “concussion” to the state's party, one that could rip open a divide between a right wing steadfastly loyal to former President Donald Trump and Republicans who have tried to exert a moderating influence.

“He’s stoic, he believes in virtue, he believes in reason,” Dempster said. “In the midst of this storm that the Republican Party is enduring, and America is enduring, you see in John Thune a sense of assurance."

Thune, who will turn 61 on Friday, has jockeyed with Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming to succeed Sen. Mitch McConnell at the helm of the Republican's Senate caucus. And powerful Republicans, from the 79-year-old McConnell to Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have urged Thune to seek another six-year term. The show of support from his Senate colleagues could prove crucial if Thune seeks reelection and makes a bid to become the next GOP Senate leader.

But Thune has shown signs of weariness after navigating a Congress and Republican Party indelibly marked by Trump. And as he walks the halls of Congress this week, Democrats will be serving up reminders of the Jan. 6 insurrection that sent Thune and his colleagues fleeing from the Senate floor.

In the hours after the attack last year, Thune expressed frustration, calling the rioting “thuggery” and connecting Trump's calls for demonstrations to the insurrection.

“When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind,” he told reporters. “You could see this coming,”

But in his home state, Thune was facing pressure. A movement to oppose him in a primary — spurred by Trump's Twitter suggestion — was gaining support and would eventually produce one candidate who was among the crowd that demonstrated near the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Eventually, Thune backed away from holding Trump accountable, urging Congress to move past the attack on the Capitol. He helped cobble together support to kill bipartisan legislation that would have established an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. Lately, he has mostly focused on scuttling the Democrats' plans.

Thune now appears well-positioned to win a fourth term. Fundraising by candidates willing to challenge him has been minuscule compared to his $14.8 million accumulated after several easy election cycles.

But now the biggest obstacle to reelection is his own will. And that hesitation has set off concern, including among Republicans dissatisfied with Thune, that South Dakota’s outsized influence in Washington would be greatly diminished by his departure.

Leslee Unruh, a prominent GOP donor and the founder of a Sioux Falls crisis pregnancy center, said she “expected more from those in high places, like John,” and has tried to push him to take a harder stance on government spending and social issues.

But she said that after running into Thune at a restaurant last week, she left “satisfied with what he has said to me.”

“In politics, it takes a long time to position yourself to be high in influence,” she said. “Anyone new coming in would not have that same influence that John currently has.”

But a Thune retirement could provide a window of opportunity for Democrats, who have seen their numbers and influence wane since Thune unseated Tom Daschle — the Democratic Senate leader at the time — in a close 2004 race. While an established official such as Rep. Dusty Johnson or Gov. Kristi Noem might jump into the Senate race if Thune retires, that would create a wide-open race that could split the vote of a divided Republican Party.

“The Democrats will come up with a good candidate,” said Drey Samuelson, a South Dakota Democratic political strategist. “The political world will change if he doesn’t run.”