- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

UPDATED:

The Republican who ousted the Democratic leader of the Senate in 2004 says Harry Reid finds himself in a similar predicament of representing a conservative-leaning state but leading a liberal party.

Sen. John Thune made Senate history when he unseated Sen. Tom Daschle by exploiting the gap between Mr. Daschle’s interests in Washington and those of his home state of South Dakota. That’s exactly where Mr. Reid, the Senate majority leader, is now, he said.

“In the case of Senator Daschle, he was leading a left-of-center caucus and representing a right-of-center state — it was very difficult to reconcile those two,” Mr. Thune told The Washington Times. “I know that Senator Reid will work very hard over the course of the next several months to convince his voters in Nevada that he’s still very connected to them and in touch, but I think that the perception that he’s got to overcome is that he is leading a left-of-center caucus in Washington that’s trying to do all these things with which they disagree.”

Mr. Reid’s falling approval ratings have led political analysts to declare his 2010 re-election bid a tossup. Recent polls have him trailing at least two possible GOP challengers.

“Anything’s possible, and we have to assume that race is going to be competitive,” Mr. Thune said.

Mr. Thune, a former three-term House member, has earned a reputation as a rising GOP star among the upper chamber. The affable Midwesterner has been a fierce critic of government spending throughout President Obama’s first term — during the debate over the stimulus bill, he routinely noted that one could spend $1 million each day since the birth of Jesus and still not match the plan’s $787 billion price tag.

He’s also taken the lead on gun rights, and says Second Amendment supporters remain a powerful force despite not winning every vote.

In June, Mr. Thune forced several Democrats to take a tough vote on a measure that would have required states to honor the concealed weapons licenses of out-of-state citizens, who would then be subject to the conceal-carry laws of the state in which they were traveling.

Mr. Thune’s amendment, which he tried to attach to the defense authorization bill, garnered 58 votes — two shy of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate for contentious legislation. The vote was a rare loss for the gun rights lobby, which earlier in the year had a significant win with Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment allowing guns in some national parks.

“The issue I decided to take on was clearly the most controversial of all. It energized people on both sides of the Second Amendment debate, but I think that to say that you got 58 votes in the Senate — that somehow [the gun rights] movement is losing steam is just not reflective of reality,” said Mr. Thune, noting that he lost two Republicans but picked up the votes of 20 Democrats.

He said he was driven to offer conceal-carry as an amendment to the defense bill after Senate Democrats tacked on lengthy hate crimes legislation.

“You can’t allow the majority to just sort of walk over you and offer these controversial amendments that are unrelated to the underlying bill,” he said.

Like other congressional Republicans, Mr. Thune blames Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill for failing to strive for bipartisanship, and he said the president should do more to rein in Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“At least rhetorically during the campaign, he presented himself as someone who’s kind of a moderate, someone who will try and bring people together and find common ground,” Mr. Thune said. “I think what he’s finding now as a matter of governance is that when you yield the agenda to Capitol Hill, the leadership in the Congress right now is way more left than I think where the American people are. So yes, if he’s going to succeed on any of these issues he’s going to have to become more assertive and try and drag his congressional party back a little bit more toward the center.”

As the new head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, Mr. Thune — who replaced Nevada Sen. John Ensign after Mr. Ensign disclosed an extramarital affair — hosts the party’s weekly policy lunch and helps shape the GOP legislative agenda. Though members of the conference may disagree in certain areas, he said it’s better for Republicans to have a wide tent that includes moderates who will vote with the party on core issues.

“It’s a question of whether you want to be an ideologically pure minority or a government majority. I think that you know you’re going to have places in the country where a Republican in Maine isn’t going to be the same as a Republican in Oklahoma; that’s just the way it is,” he said. “If you want to set the agenda, if you want to be the party that’s actually leading the country, you’re going to have to recognize that you’re going to have to have a party that includes a lot of people that you may not agree with on every issue.”

Right now, the unifying principle for Republican senators is the economy and the expansion of government into the private sector, said Mr. Thune, who has written legislation requiring the government to divest itself of all private ownership interests within one year of being enacted.

“I just think there are a lot of people around the country who are very skeptical having the government on a long-term basis owning large parts of the private economy. Even ‘Cash for Clunkers’ — my gosh, we couldn’t even give away $3 billion and do it well,” he said. Congress should prevent the $700 billion bailout fund from becoming “the go-to fund for all the different projects that the administration wants to undertake,” he added.

Mr. Thune does not yet have a challenger for his seat in 2010, but Democrats are already preparing their lines of attack. Erin McCarrick, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, described the senator as “hypocritical.”

“Sen. Thune spends more time concentrating on his leadership responsibilities than he does on his responsibilities to South Dakotans,” she said. “At a time when South Dakotans are looking for bipartisan solutions and relief from our economic crisis, Sen. Thune is offering no solutions, passing little legislation and actively working against productive and viable legislation.”

Occasionally cited as a potential 2012 GOP presidential contender, Mr. Thune — who is up for re-election next year — was coy about his future aspirations, saying he has no plans to travel to Iowa anytime soon unless it’s to sample locally made ice cream.

Mr. Thune, a native of Murdo, S.D., a small town in the central part of the state, said one of his early political lessons came during an appearance he made at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. An avid supporter of the Green Bay Packers, he sported a team sweatshirt at the event, underestimating the passions of a constituency dominated by Minnesota Vikings fans.

“It was bizarre. People were screaming stuff at me and it was just — never again,” he said. “I probably lost a thousand votes doing that.”

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