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Thune ready to 'support the team' amid questions on McConnell's health

US Senator John Thune, R-SD, during a Senate Republican press conference on March 3, 2023.
US Senator John Thune, R-SD, during a Senate Republican press conference on March 3, 2023.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune said his office is prepared to help in the event Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is unable to run the caucus.

Thune is the minority whip, which means he’s next in line to lead behind McConnell.

McConnell froze and appeared to be unable to speak during two separate press conferences within the last two months. At the first instance in July, Thune stepped in once McConnell was escorted from the podium. The second episode happened Wednesday.

Thune made the comments last week, following McConnell's first lapse in public.

The incidents are raising questions about McConnell's ability to lead Senate Republicans. The 81-year-old from Kentucky was also hospitalized for a concussion in the spring.

Thune said his office does what’s necessary to support the team.

“Sen. McConnell is a leader, but we all pitch in when we’re needed," Thune said. "When he was out for a brief period when he had that concussion, our staff and team stepped in and worked with his team and made sure that the trains were running and running smoothly.”

A spokesperson for Thune's office expressed confidence in McConnell's leadership, noting Thune and McConnell spoke Thursday by phone, and "the leader sounded like his usual self and was in good spirits."

Thune was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, when he unseated then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

The Republican from Murdo rose through the ranks into Senate leadership. He serves on the Senate Ag committee, as well as commerce and finance committees.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.