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Woster: Thune mulls complex issues as announcement on future nears

Senator John Thune delivering floor remarks on December 16, 2021
Senator John Thune delivering floor remarks on December 16, 2021

Probably by this Sunday?

That seems to be the time frame for John Thune to make an announcement on whether he will run for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

At least, that’s the word from a guy named Jake Sherman and his daily newsletter on Congress, Punchbowl News.

Sherman, who is also an analyst for MSNBC and NBC News, said in a tweet Wednesday saying he had “caught up with Thune” and asked if he was running. He said Thune’s response was “We’ll see about that,” and that the senator would announce by Sunday.

Thune has had a lot to consider as he worked up to this big announcement.

Nothing in that "a lot" is more important than certification.

That's the certification of our presidential elections and the peaceful, lawful transfer of power. It’s one of the essentials that separates this country from many others.

And it’s one of the bulwarks that have made us shine as a stable system of government admired throughout the world.

The certification system starts at the local and state levels and ends up in the final step, two months after the November election, in Congress.

In January of 2021, 147 Republicans in Congress were prepared to deny the votes of the people in the 2020 presidential election. To ignore and even violate the law, as it were.

And, of course, outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, anarchists supporting Donald Trump rallied their way into a riot that turned into a physical attack on the center of our nation’s government.

And all of it was based on concocted allegations of voter fraud that did not exist and were proven fallacious by elections officials from both parties across the nation, including key swing states.

Well, it was based on a greedy desire for power, too, of course, or to maintain power that was not rightly granted by the voters.

Enough Republicans in the U.S. House joined Democrats to assure certification. And few Senate Republicans were even willing to push the issue, so the lawful, legitimate election of Joe Biden was certified.

Thank heavens. Thank the certifiers, including our own John Thune, Mike Rounds and Dusty Johnson.

Shortly after the attack on the Capitol and a retaking of that building by authorities, the Senate and House did their jobs.

John Thune would call the actions by the Trump-obsessed insurrectionists “thuggery.” It was. At least. And then some.

But the Big Lie won’t die

And now, a year later, some political commentators are referring to an “ongoing insurrection in this nation.” Trump and his minions continue to spread “The Big Lie.” And many Trump supporters — some of them in Congress — are now downplaying the Capitol attack last year.

Some promote the goofy lie that it was all set u by the FBI. Some says it was leftist groups in disguise as Trump supporters. And others — a surprising and disturbing number of others, especially among the Republican Party — say the attack, while perhaps going too far, was based on patriotism.

Beyond that, Republicans are working across the land to make voting harder, with some of the bigger potential impacts in metropolitan areas with heavy Democratic populations that often include many people of color.

Further work is under way by some in the GOP to build a framework for denying legitimate elections, if they don’t happen to like the results. And proponents of the Big Lie of election fraud are running or preparing to run for local and state elections offices across the nation, which could give them more control on vote counting and reporting.

Similar advocates of the Big Lie, including some here in South Dakota, are running for or planning to run for seats in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. That means the lawful transfer of power could face an even greater threat from fact deniers and Big Lie spreaders and loony conspiracy theorists (or insidiously pragmatic ones) the next time around in a presidential race.

Which Thune must be considering as he decides his own future.

If Thune runs for a fourth six-year term in the U.S. Senate, he will almost certainly win. Probably by a lot.

Kristi Noem would be his only real threat, and she has said she won't run against her friend John and is running for another term as governor.

If Thune steps away, will Johnson be the one?

If Thune doesn't run, Congressman Dusty Johnson is the most likely lead GOP candidate for Thune's Senate spot. If Johnson runs for the Senate, he will probably win -- most likely against at least one advocate of the Big Lie and other craziness in a GOP primary.

Then there’s always Mark Mickelson to consider. The eldest son of Gov. George S. Mickelson and grandson of Gov. George T. Mickelson, Mark Mickelson was raising money and making campaign stops for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary.

But then Mickelson announced late in 2016 that he would not run in that primary. He said his heart wasn’t in it, in large part because he and his wife were too busy with their three sons, then ages 13 to 17, and their activities.

Now that those boys are older, would a campaign for the U.S. Senate be more enticing? Maybe. Or not.

Johnson seems a more likely bet. Even he, however, wouldn’t be the overwhelming favorite that Thune would be in a GOP U.S. Senate primary, where the party’s irrational wing holds the most power. Still, he'd probably win.

That’s presuming Noem -- who has already given money to Johnson's U.S. House re-election campaign -- didn't change her mind and run for the Senate.

A win by Johnson in a Senate race would keep a conservative Republican, like Thune, in that seat. It also would keep a rational certifier of legitimate elections, like Thune, in that seat.

Which is, well, just about as important to the future of this democracy — or this democratic republic, if that’s your preferred term — as anything elected officials can do.

The peaceful transfer of power. That’s America. So far.

The state's other U.S. Senate seat, which will be held by former Gov. Mike Rounds through at least the 2026 election, is also in rational-Republican control.

And how about that House seat?

But if Johnson runs for the Senate, South Dakota’s only U.S. House seat would be up for grabs, and vulnerable to a GOP primary win by one of the delusional Republicans promoting the Big Lie and other nonsense.

Would former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, a rational Republican with deep understanding of the rule of law, run for the U.S. House seat? Or would he continue on his course to win the state Attorney General's job now held by Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who faces an impeachment inquiry by the state Legislature.

And if Jackley didn't run for the House, would there be another Republican candidate with a solid grip on fact and a rational view of government? A certifier, that is. We’ll see.

Beyond the Republican Party, Billie Sutton comes to mind, of course. The moderate — some in his party might say conservative — Democrat showed his stuff against Noem in the 2018 race for governor. He came within 3 percentage points of the Republican, the best finish by a Democrat in the governor’s race since 1986.

Sutton still has big-win potential in his profile. But it’s unlikely that he would be interested in the U.S. House seat and either a move to the D.C. area or those complicated weekly trips back and forth. Or all the fundraising he’d have to do quickly to compete.

Besides, Sutton and his wife, Kelsea, are deeply engaged these days with their young family, their professional work and Billie’s leadership institute. He is a much better bet for a run, for governor, in 2026.

All told, it's a lot for a guy like Thune to ponder, even beyond the “simpler” considerations involved in balancing his affection for the Senate job and pressure to run from the Republican Senate caucus against his love for his wife, Kimberley, their kids and grandkids.

That’s a hard pull to resist, especially if you’ve grown a bit weary of the way Congress works, or doesn’t work, these days and of the hard-edge of the Trump crew in your own party.

Then there’s always the enticement of spending more nights in high school or college gymnasiums around South Dakota, munching popcorn, watching basketball and greeting people who are thrilled to shake the hand of a former U.S. senator.

“Former U.S. Senator.”

That’s not a bad “job,” either, when you think about it.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.