Last updated on 2014.07.22
An eager reader asks what I think John Thune will do in 2016: run for re-election to the Senate or run for President? Assuming he runs for anything, I say Senate 2016, then President 2024.
First, Thune himself says he's not running for President in 2016.
Thune is in his second term in the Senate.* After a hard fight to win the first term by unseating Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, Thune got a free pass to his second in 2010, when Democrats ran no one against him. He's climbing the ladder of Republican leadership; a third term would move him higher.
Plus, think of his odds. I haven't read much punditry saying 2016 will be a good year for Republicans to take the White House. There are a lot of Republicans in the chute in front of Thune with more name recognition and money, and none of them (Paul, Huckabee, Christie, Portman, etc.) have shown sure-fire Hillary-beating potential. If the Dems don't nominate Hillary (Elizabeth Warren is unlikely to run and less likely to win, but we Wellstonians can dream), the calculus changes somewhat, but not the long line of GOP heavy hitters in front of Thune.
Besides, nationally, Thune hasn't done squat. McCain had a legislative record, had mavericky national buzz. Romney had been governor and invented the Affordable Care Act (oh, oops). Name one thing that Thune is known for nationally that would boost a presidential bid.
Meanwhile, back home in South Dakota, Thune is God. He affirms everything that a majority of South Dakota voters want to be: good-looking, West River, down-homey, and bringing home just enough DC pork without passing all sorts of laws and regulations. No Democrat challenged him in 2010, leaving his rep and war chest unscathed. Even if the Dems throw the best they can muster at Thune in 2016 (Brendan Johnson, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Ryan Casey), Thune will have an easier time beating them locally than beating a field of GOP primary contenders and a Dem nominee propelled by demographics nationally.
If I'm Thune, if I enjoy power, I keep a good thing going by hanging on to my Senate seat for one more term. I serve in that seat through 2022, open to the possibility that Obama's Democratic successor will do worse and be vulnerable to a challenge in 2020, but not counting on it. I take Mitch McConnell's place as Senate leader and build my national profile as the Democratic president's strongest yet most reasonable opponent. I build my leadership PAC and increase my giving to other Republicans around the country to make them beholden to me. I help my handpicked GOP successor win my seat in South Dakota in 2022. I leave the Senate undefeated and loved by all the right people.
And in 2024, at the healthy and handsome age of 63, I run for President on much firmer national footing than I had in the risky year of 2016. The demographics aren't any better, but my profile and war chest are.
I thought in 2011 that Thune might have been angling to get Romney's rolodex to boost a 2016 run. But the national strength of Democrats tells me he'll hold back, build his resume and network more, and restrain any Presidential ambitions until 2024.
I invite you, dear readers (including you, Senate staffers, who read this blog at work!), to identify variables that would change the equation and send Thune charging off against Christie, Paul, and Clinton in 2016.
*Correction 2014.07.22 11:27 CDT: I corrected and edited this paragraph, which originally and erroneously stated Thune was in his third term. I regret my forgetfulness!