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Thune’s Popularity Is About to Rise

The phone in Sen. John Thune’s office is about to start ringing — a lot.

The South Dakota Republican — who also leads the Senate GOP Policy Committee and is widely viewed as a 2012 presidential contender —is up for re-election this year. But no Democrat or Independent filed to run against him, leaving him with plenty of time and money to help Republicans win seats this November as the party seeks to regain a true sense of relevancy on Capitol Hill.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Thursday he planned to meet with Thune soon to explore ways the up-and-coming first-term Senator could help the NRSC and GOP candidates from now until Election Day. Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) added that he fully expects Thune to be a strong political asset over the next 135 days.

So, once the phone starts ringing in earnest, Thune is prepared to answer it.

“I would like to be able to have a little bit more latitude and flexibility — which hopefully I now will have not having an opponent filed in South Dakota — to help Senate candidates, both incumbents who I’m close to and that I agree with on a lot of issues and I want to see come back, and also some of our challengers,” Thune said in an interview Thursday from his office in the Russell Building.

“That will mean helping raise money,” Thune continued. “The big issue this year because the playing field is so extended is really going to be a resource issue. It’s going to be hard resourcing all these candidates, and it’s going to take a lot to help them put the money in the bank that they need to run their campaigns effectively.”

Kyl, who is personally close with Thune, said his colleague brings added political value to the Conference. So far this cycle, Thune — who won the title “giant killer” for defeating then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004 — has headlined or attended more than 30 fundraisers for individual Republican candidates and more than 25 events for the NRSC.

“He brings a lot of talent and a lot of energy, and I think increasingly he is probably somebody that people want to see,” Kyl said.

Thune is currently huddling with his political team to lay out a strategy for the midterm elections. On the agenda: How much of the $6.6 million sitting in his campaign account he might part with, how he will be deployed across the country to fundraise for incumbents and challengers, how to spend the August recess and how much attention to devote to Republicans in South Dakota.

Thune is reluctant to feed the notion that he is a fundraising draw for GOP audiences. And, he noted that there are several races where a Republican Senate Leader might be the last person a candidate wants help from, given the anti-Washington fervor coloring this election cycle.

But the 49-year-old Thune recognizes that his strength is his ability to motivate Republican donors to open their checkbooks, and he is ready to hit the road on behalf of candidates and the NRSC, which is targeting 11 Democratic-held seats this cycle. The GOP needs to win 10 to take back the Senate, a tall order even in a favorable political environment.

The Republican Conference, Thune said, “has lots of people who would probably be more helpful and bigger draws than I would be. But, if I can be helpful, we offer that up, and when asked we try and accommodate. Some events I’m going to do for the NRSC, and then some events I’m actually going to do for candidates even outside their state, in other places around the country where candidates and their campaigns think I can be helpful.”

Thune will neither speculate on whether he might run for president in 2012 nor rule it out. Thune lost his first Senate bid narrowly — a hard-fought challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002 — before ousting Daschle in a very expensive, bitter campaign.

“I think if you start thinking beyond 2010 you really put in jeopardy and peril the opportunity that we have to do really well. And I think 2012 is going to depend a lot on what happens in the 2010 elections and how we do in picking up seats in the House and Senate, how the party performs, what kind of a message we have, how that resonates with voters,” Thune said. “Right now I’m really trying to focus on message, money and helping candidates in ’10 and have not looked beyond that.”

“It strikes me, too, that with the unpopularity that Washington has that there are certain hurdles for people from the Senate — or House for that matter” in terms of their ability to be a viable presidential candidate, Thune added.

Thune’s priorities are likely to please Cornyn. The NRSC chairman said Thursday that Thune is a valuable money draw who figures prominently into the committee’s broader fundraising plans.

“He’s helped us a number of times. He’s a very popular and often-requested Senator when it comes to political events, and I think he’s shown himself willing to make himself available,” Cornyn said. “I’ve got bigger and better plans for him than perhaps he’s had in the past.”

That’s good news to the GOP rank and file. Said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.): “John Thune is an absolute powerhouse for the Republican Party. He’s very solid, he knows the issues, he’s good on the stump, he’s good on the Senate floor, he communicates well and he connects very well with voters across the whole political spectrum.”

Although only in his first term, Thune entered the Senate with ready-made credibility after defeating Daschle. Thune, a conservative, is popular with the GOP base, but he also is viewed as having appeal with independent voters.

Aides say Thune, a married father of two daughters — one in college, the other in high school — has developed a reputation as a strong political strategist. However, he has also honed his policy muscle as the chairman of the Policy Committee, and in that slot he has worked to revamp the operation to include an additional focus on external communications.

Last week, a newly constructed Policy Committee website went live. The website includes blogs written by Policy Committee experts, as well as the ability to watch Senate floor deliberations streaming live. Thune’s Policy Committee plans an intense focus on health care reform as the new law is implemented.

Thune also is interested in government spending, the deficit and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that is soon to come before the Senate for ratification, and he is directing his staff to study those issues. But Thune would like to have an opportunity to actually implement policy, as opposed to just issuing white papers and trying to modify Democratic proposals. He’s hoping the midterm elections can change that.

“We’re hoping that after November we’ll be in a better position to negotiate on legislation,” Thune said. “If you’re a negotiator, we’re not in a very good negotiating position — we don’t have a lot of leverage — and we’re hoping we’ll get some checks and balances back in this process. We pick up some seats, then they’ll have to work with us.”

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