Last year when writing about the 2022 midterm elections, I spoke with Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Chairman Matt Schlapp, who proclaimed, “If Trump runs again, he is essentially the incumbent.”
Fast forward to last week’s CPAC gathering, where former President Trump practically announced his run for what I call “re-relection,” boasting, “We did it twice. And we’ll do it again.”
CPAC’s straw poll results confirmed Trump’s predominance for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination among the 2,500 Trump-loyal attendees who voted. Even though he was twice-impeached and twice lost the popular vote, Trump won 59 percent at CPAC — more than double the 28 percent of votes earned by his closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
During that September conversation with Schlapp, I asked the influential CPAC leader if he thought “Trump would have primary opposition or be crowned the nominee without a fight” Schlapp’s answer was politically sound:
“I think Trump will have primary opponents, a lane of never-Trump, and I don’t know how many there will be. President Trump should want these opponents because he is much better in the ring when competing against somebody. I don’t know if I can see him just getting coronated. I don’t know how he would react to that — he is so used to fighting! But Trump will be a better candidate if he has to take someone on immediately. I believe primaries can be a good thing.”
Yes, presidential primaries have always been a “good thing” because sometimes leading candidates don’t filter well when running through strainers.
However, if Trump is “essentially the incumbent,” who wants to risk their political career and party standing by angering a cult-like base of Trump worshippers? Who will be brave enough to get in the ring and bloody the nose of the world’s heavyweight bully? Are any prominent Republican leaders willing to “primary” Trump — if only to prevent him from arguing that primaries are a waste of time and money and should be canceled?
May I suggest someone absent from CPAC and their 2024 presidential candidate straw poll? His name is Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). Who? If you are unfamiliar with Thune, he is the minority whip and second-ranking GOP senator strongly allied with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Popular among his colleagues, Thune is a potential successor to McConnell — if, at age 80, McConnell retires before his term ends in January 2027.
What follows is the political rationale for Thune 2024 — even though he is virtually unknown to most Republicans and Americans. Let’s begin with Thune’s historic Senate election.
From Jan. 3, 1995, until Jan. 3, 2005, Senate Democrats were led by a Washington powerhouse from South Dakota named Tom Daschle. Sen. Daschle ruled as either minority or majority leader. By 2004, a half-century had passed since a Senate leader of either party had been defeated by his home-state voters. More reason why Republicans rejoiced on Nov. 2, 2004, when Daschle was defeated by John Thune, a former three-term congressman. Sen. Thune was welcomed to the Senate as a rising star and giant-slaying hero. Moreover, at 6’4” and ruggedly handsome, Thune ranked #9 on The Hill’s 2005 “Most Beautiful People” list.
Today, Sen. Thune ranks first on the “list” of most powerful but nationally unknown Senate Republican leaders. That is quite a feat at a time when senators work overtime spewing nonsense to increase their social media following and cable TV bookings. And double overtime when up for reelection — as Thune is for his fourth term in November. Nonetheless, Thune should cruise to victory according to his solid red ranking on the Cook Political Report.
In part, the answer to why Thune should contest Trump is attributed to legendary baseball manager Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” My former party is at that fork, stuck in Trump’s mud. Therefore, if willing, Thune could be a compromise candidate able to attract long-time GOP voters like me back into the party to imagine a future without Trump. As a Senate leader, he understands the potential insanity of a Trump run and is deaf to the bullying.
For example, in December 2020, when Trump’s loyal GOP House and Senate members were planning to overturn the Electoral College, Thune said, “it would go down like a shot dog.” On cue, Trump resorted to name-calling on Twitter threatening Senate Minority Whip Thune, writing: “RINO [Republican In Name Only] John Thune, ‘Mitch’s boy,’ should just let it play out. South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!” Thune ignored the president’s rant.
Thune could brand himself as a “post-Trump era, no drama” Republican presidential candidate who knows his way around Capitol Hill from his Senate leadership perch. Just imagine Thune with Trump on a primary debate stage. The senator could offer primary voters a safe, knowledgeable alternative to a legally-challenged, reelection sore loser who threatened our democratic system but still controls the GOP through fear and intimidation.
Moreover, Thune could remind the public why Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 — the promise of a return to normalcy without the daily upheaval. Although Biden is unpopular, if Trump is careening toward the nomination, Thune might craft a campaign message based on electing the GOP version of a stable, experienced adult.
Thune speaks out against Trump but only in small doses and usually in a group of GOP senators. On Tuesday, Leader McConnell and Sen. Thune were out front pushing back hard on Trump’s praise of Putin while voicing support for Ukraine and NATO.
Unlike Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Thune is not the Senate’s anti-Trump, go-to-media-man — a smart move befitting what could be a political rationale not to alienate Trump supporters who may be seeking an off-ramp.
For the early lead-up to the 2024 presidential campaign, Thune is off-stage, avoiding taking “the fork in the road.” But if Republicans want an even-keeled, no-nonsense, well-versed, conservative leader to stop Trump, John Thune might offer a path through the fork. And remember, never underestimate a man who earned his Senate seat by toppling a Washington giant. Like Trump, Thune knows how to fight.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.