As Mitt Romney’s senior advisers consider their vice-presidential prospects, they’re keeping an eye on a dark horse: Senator John Thune, a lanky and telegenic South Dakota Republican. “Even though he’s not from a battleground state, he’s seen as serious and credible,” says John Sununu, a Romney confidant. “There’s no question, in my mind, that he’s on the list for consideration.”
“Very smart,” says Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s former campaign manager, when asked about a potential Romney-Thune ticket. “He looks presidential and passes all the tests.”
Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, downplays the veep chatter, but it’s only likely to increase in the months ahead. According to sources close to the Romney campaign, the former Massachusetts governor may be inclined to tap a mild-mannered, business-friendly Midwestern senator.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is often cited as someone who fits that profile, but so does Thune, a 51-year-old native of rural Murdo, S.D., and an ally of Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader. Thune briefly flirted with a presidential run last year, only to decide against it, but his interest in presidential politics remains. He’s eager to enter the fray — as a supporting player.
“It’s an even-money game,” Thune says, evaluating Romney’s chances. “For a while, everyone was hanging their heads about how things looked coming out of the primary, where scars and permanent damage were expected. But it’s amazing how quickly Governor Romney’s numbers have snapped back. It’s now a fair fight, and we have a legitimate shot at winning the presidency.”
Thune, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota, says one of Romney’s challenges will be to win over the swaths of the Rust Belt that President Obama swept four years ago. As the son of a schoolteacher and the grandson of a hardware-store owner, Thune says, he knows that “pocketbook issues,” more than anything, can be effective in wooing blue-collar voters.
“It’s all about jobs and the economy, and that’s Romney’s forte,” Thune says. Yet as the president pummels Romney for once managing the private-equity firm Bain Capital, Romney must respond assertively. “He’s got to highlight his experience in creating jobs,” Thune says. “There’s a real contrast between a business leader and a community organizer.”
Thune, a devout Christian, sees Romney’s economic experience as the Republican nominee’s best asset, but he also believes that Romney can make inroads among evangelicals. Those voters may not have been “completely sold” on Romney in the primary, but compared with President Obama, he’s by far the best choice in November, Thune says. “Evangelicals recognize that a second Obama term could be very dangerous, particularly with regard to the Supreme Court and regulations,” he explains.
Another factor Thune mentions is the “business-like way” in which Romney runs his campaign. Romney frequently reaches out to leaders on Capitol Hill, he says, and the relationships between key GOP players and the nominee are professional and open — a good omen for potential 2013 success should Romney win the White House. “His skill set would enable him to step in and get things done,” Thune says.
Thune, for his part, has developed a friendship with Romney in recent years, starting with a dinner he and his wife, Kimberley, shared with Romney in South Dakota a few years ago. Thune has also stumped alongside Romney in Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado. “He gets sort of panned as being a little bit stiff or whatever, but he has a great sense of humor,” Thune says.
Thune hopes to join Romney on the hustings again soon. His family, he tells me, is more than supportive of his political activity — despite Beltway rumors to the contrary. (A little backstory: When Thune was considering a presidential bid, Politico reported that Kimberley Thune read Game Change, the bestseller about the 2008 campaign, and was dismayed by the spat-filled narrative and the gossipy details of the candidates’ marriages.)
“She read Game Change, and it was pretty sobering,” Thune acknowledges. “But my wife is really supportive and has a sense of duty about serving the country in the same way that I do, going back to the first campaign in 1996. She is willing to roll up her sleeves and go to work. Game Change was something that shaped her thinking, but she was committed to whatever it was that we ultimately decided to do.”
Staying on this theme, I ask Thune whether his wife would be supportive of his accepting the vice-presidential spot, should Romney offer it. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he reiterates. “But my wife would never resist something that she felt is in service to the country. She’s had that approach since I first ran, and whatever the future brings, she’ll be in the mix.”
Thune would also not mind if Romney’s campaign team poked into his background as part of a vetting process, an investigation that some vice-presidential contenders find uncomfortable. “My life is an open book,” he says. “I’ve run for office many times and everything that can be out there is out there. I’m not apprehensive about somebody taking a look.”
For now, Thune is focused on his legislative work and doing what he can to help elect more Republicans to the Senate. Being in the minority has its limitations, since he and his colleagues spend much of their time reacting to Democrats. “Instead of initiating and driving an agenda, you end up responding to whatever Harry Reid is talking about, which is political messaging, not solving problems,” Thune says.
“I wish we were doing more in terms of policy, playing offense,” says Thune, a former high-school track and basketball standout who sits on the Finance and Commerce committees. His priorities for the rest of this year are tax reform and entitlement reform. “If we don’t start doing those things, we are going to be Europe,” he says. “We’ve got to turn things around.”
Thune may not be on every pundit’s veep radar, but within the marble halls of the Capitol, you can be sure that McConnell and others like the idea of the South Dakotan at Romney’s side. Eight years ago, Thune famously toppled a Democratic giant, then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. If Romney wants a low-key running mate, this giant-killer and seasoned Washington hand from the Upper Midwest could fit the bill.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.