Sen. John Thune is looking to move up a notch on the Senate Republican leadership team.
Thune, who holds the No. 4 spot in the leadership team, announced plans Tuesday to seek the No. 3 spot hours after Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said he would quit the post in January.
In a conference call with reporters, Thune said the post would give him more clout in advocating for national and South Dakota interests.
Whoever gets the job, known as the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, will need 24 votes to be elected by Republican senators. The election has not been scheduled, but Thune said he already has reached out to some of his colleagues.
“For better or worse, you have to get out there and make your intentions known,” Thune said. “The response has been positive so far.”
But other senators might run, and Thune said he wouldn’t presume any outcome when it comes to leadership elections.
“There are a lot of people in our conference who could do this job and do it well,” he said.
In quitting the post, Alexander said the job is preventing him from working on bipartisan solutions.
Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who studies Congress, said the conference chairman is responsible for promoting the party’s policies and political goals. Invariably, that requires the chairman to criticize Democratic policies, and Pearson said the chairmanship is “obviously very partisan in nature.”
“It’s really the messaging arm of the Republican Party when it comes to both policy and politics,” she said, adding that Democrats have an equivalent position.
Not necessarily more partisan, Thune says
Thune noted Tuesday that he’s held a leadership post for three years. A bigger role will enable him to explain Republican policies, and he said he’s convinced South Dakota and the nation are right of center and support Republican goals.
“This would be yet another opportunity to do that,” he said. “I don’t think it requires you necessarily to be more partisan.”
But Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it appears Thune is trying to raise his national profile at the expense of South Dakota’s interests. He expects to see Thune on more talk shows if he gets the post.
“It’s good for John Thune, I suppose, and his presidential ambitions,” Nesselhuf said. “The position is the most partisan position there is. Basically, you’re an attack dog.”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Thune has demonstrated he can “articulate a quite conservative message but in a way that doesn’t sound as threatening as some others do.”
“He’s a smart guy,” Ornstein said. “He’s a very attractive guy. He is able to talk in terms that people understand and not do it in a way that is combative, bombastic or threatening.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Thune is “probably more conservative than Alexander but not dramatically so.” Thune is well regarded and easy to work with, he said.
Nebraska’s Johanns steps aside for Thune
Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns had considered running for the spot, but his spokesman, Steve Wymer, said Johanns abandoned those plans when Thune said he would seek the post. Johanns expects Thune’s support to be “near unanimous,” Wymer said.
“He believes Thune is one of the most talented members of the U.S. Senate” and will be effective in “articulating the values of the Republican caucus,” Wymer said.