We need more principled conservatives like John Thune

After months of speculation he might leave office due to family considerations and concerns about the direction of the national Republican Party, U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican Whip who unseated powerful Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle 18 years ago, has formally announced his candidacy for a fourth term in 2022.

Ordinarily, this would not be terribly significant news. Thune is a popular incumbent from a state that has become increasingly Republican after being more populist in the past. He is overwhelmingly favored to win a fourth term.

But Thune incurred the wrath of defeated former President Donald Trump by openly challenging Trump’s baseless conspiracies of a stolen election saying “that dog doesn’t hunt.”  Predictably, Trump attacked Thune as a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and derided him as “Mitch’s boy” since Thune is number two in the Senate Republican leadership behind Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump also declared he would help oust Thune from office and he encouraged Republican Gov. Kristi Noem to challenge Thune in a Republican primary. During Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July in 2020, Noem ingratiated herself by presenting Trump with a replica of Mount Rushmore that includes Trump’s face next to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But Noem, who is also up for reelection in 2022, quickly announced she was not interested in running against Thune for the Senate.

Ironically, as part of Senate Republican leadership under McConnell, Thune’s leadership was critical to the passage of Trump’s landmark tax cut legislation and he helped move 226 federal judicial nominations by Trump through the Senate, including three new justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thune supported Trump’s deregulation agenda along with his immigration and southern border policies. He opposed both Democratic attempts to impeach and remove Trump.

Regardless of this strong support of the Trump agenda, he is a RINO because he refuses to join in the hysterical conspiracy theories of a stolen election.

Trump loyalists often say “establishment” Republicans such as Thune “don’t know how to fight” like Trump does. Really?

After being elected South Dakota’s lone congressman in 1996, Thune challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002.  Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s formidable political team ran Johnson’s campaign and they ran roughshod over the Thune campaign. Despite being favored to win, Thune lost by 524 votes. Rumors swirled that election fraud occurred on South Dakota’s nine Indian reservations and Thune was encouraged by some Republican leaders to challenge the results of the election.

But Thune conceded the race to Johnson, and he strongly rejected such calls saying he would not put his beloved state through such a wrenching controversy. What a contrast to what we are seeing today from those who cannot accept the judgment of the voters and who instead hide behind stolen election conspiracy theories.

Rather than retiring from elective politics, Thune decided to challenge the much more formidable Daschle who was the most powerful Democratic leader in America in 2004. Bill Clinton was no longer in office and Barack Obama was a candidate for the Senate in Illinois.

Daschle was very effective at stopping legislation and federal appointments supported by Republican President George W. Bush through his skillful use of the filibuster which essentially requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass something in the Senate. Thune made Daschle’s obstruction a key part of the campaign labeling Daschle the “Chief Obstructionist” who used his power to the detriment of South Dakotans.

Notably, at no point did Thune, nor any other Republican senator, call for the abolishment of the filibuster despite their frustration with Daschle’s obstructionism, unlike today’s Senate Democrats.

The Daschle-Thune race of 2004 was second only to the presidential race between Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in terms of national significance and visibility. Unlike 2002 when Thune was considered the favorite in his losing race against Johnson, he was definitely the underdog in 2004 against Daschle.

The entire South Dakota congressional delegation in 2004 was Democratic. Undefeated over 26 years, Daschle was first elected to Congress in 1978 before unseating a Republican senator in 1986. Daschle outspent Thune by several million dollars. Over the years as Senate Democratic Leader, Daschle had assembled a nationally respected — some would say ruthless — campaign team in anticipation of a possible 2004 presidential candidacy.

But in the end, Thune’s victory was the first time in 52 years that a sitting Senate leader had been defeated for reelection. Most of Daschle’s campaign team went on to work for the newly elected senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. They helped him win the presidency and worked in the White House. They were certainly not the junior varsity of campaigns. I guess that RINO Thune knew how to fight after all.

Both Democrats and Republicans can learn something from the principled conservative from South Dakota. Republicans who buy off on stolen election conspiracy theories should ponder how Thune turned a bitter upset loss into one of the greatest upset wins in Senate election history.  Democrats should note how Republicans did not try to reverse more than a hundred years of Senate tradition when they were confronted with almost daily filibusters from Democrats.

Both sides need to cool it when it comes to undermining our political process and our constitutional form of government. That is why it is good news for the nation that Sen. John Thune is seeking reelection.

Dick Wadhams is a Colorado Republican political consultant who was campaign manager for Sen. John Thune in 2004 when he defeated Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

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