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Sen. Thune shares why he's running for Senate GOP leader

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

Sen. John Thune has thrown his hat in the ring for the Senate Republican leadership position.

SDPB's Lee Strubinger brings us his conversation with Thune. We talk about his bid for the Senate Republican leadership title and the South Dakota values he says he'd bring to the position.

Plus, his thoughts on Ukraine, TikTok and why the Farm Bill has temporarily stalled.
The following transcript was auto-generated.
Cara Hetland:
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has announced he's stepping down as Senate minority leader this November. Three Johns are viewed as the most likely candidates to replace McConnell.

One of those is our very own Sen. John Thune. SDPB’s Lee Strubinger spoke with Thune about his bid for Senate leadership and what he'd bring to the position.

 They also discussed Donald Trump, Ukraine, TikTok and the Farm Bill.

Take a listen.

Lee Strubinger:
What's your view about the future of the United States Senate?

John Thune:
Well, I mean obviously I'm interested in succeeding him in that job. So I think that the thing that Sen. McConnell did really well is he really defended the institution. And when the filibuster was under attack, which is kind of the essence of what makes the Senate unique in our democracy, he defended it not only against Democrats but against Republicans who wanted to get rid of it.

And so, he very much was an institutionalist. He had different style. He's been doing it for 18 years, and when you've had one style for 18 years, there's always an opportunity for a new generation of leadership.

As we think about what that looks like and that election will be held after the general election in November, I'm obviously chatting with a lot of my colleagues and talking about what they want to see in the leader, the next leader in the Senate, and sharing with them what I think I can contribute to that.

Sen. McConnell leaves big shoes to fill and had a lot of accomplishments as leader, but this is a chance for a pivot.

Eighteen years is a long time, and I think it is time for that new generation of consistent principled and hopefully conservative leadership that makes our country stronger for the future.

Lee Strubinger:
What do you see that conservative leadership sort of looking like? I mean, McConnell has been fairly critical about this kind of wave of Trump-leaning senators. Do you see the Senate going more in that direction or do you see it still kind of being a lot of the institutional style senators on the Republican side?

John Thune:
Well, I think it's a combination. A lot of the newer senators grew up and came of age politically and started running for office in the Trump era. And so they're more defined, I think by his personality style of leadership.

But I do think that if you look at kind of what the Republican party historically stood for in terms of limited government, economic freedom, free enterprise free markets, personal freedom, coupled with individual responsibility, peace and strength, I mean, I think those are all sort of defining Republican principles.

And I still think there are a lot of folks who subscribe to those. And even at a time when former President Trump's personality tends to cast a shadow over a lot of the candidates who are running for office, and there are a lot of implications about that for some of the positions that we take, especially when it comes to international issues, national security issues.

But in the end, I still think the Republican Party and its core principles are going to withstand the test of time even as personalities come and go on that stage.

Lee Strubinger:
Could you tell me a little bit about why you're running for Senate GOP leader?

John Thune:
Well, I just think I bring a different style of leadership. I think there's something about those of us who come from Midwest that's built around common sense. It tends to be a style of leadership that I think is collaborative in the sense that we try to bring people together.

And I just believe that being a leader essentially is making the team better, making the people around you better.

And I think there's an opportunity here with this new generation of leadership to empower our colleagues in the Senate, obviously in this case the Republicans, but you also deal with some Democrats to make a positive difference for all Americans.

I look at it as a place where I can make a difference. And I think right now with the challenges we face in the future, some problems that are going to require strong leadership, that having somebody that brings that commonsense approach that is consensus-based and solutions-oriented can be good. And obviously for South Dakota, but hopefully also for the country.

Lee Strubinger:
When we look at the kind of landscape of the Senate, a lot of people are projecting that Republicans are going to take back control of the U.S. Senate. When we think back to about 20 years ago where you were at in running for office and where your challenger was at, have you given any thought to majority leader and how you ended up in the Senate and where you are now?

John Thune:
Right. I think the people draw comparisons for sure. And of course it's a long ways off. These are all hypotheticals. But if I were successful, obviously when I ran the first time or the second time for the Senate against Senator Daschle at the time, we made an issue of the fact that he wasn't using his leadership in a way to advance the interest of South Dakota.

I think that since that time, South Dakota has become even more conservative and I think that I'm going to be a lot more aligned with in terms of the leadership that I would bring as a leader in the United States Senate with where a majority of South Dakotans are on the issues.

I think the challenge Senator Daschle had was his national party had moved away from where a majority of South Dakotans were, and so there was a real disconnect there. So obviously South Dakota is in a different place, the country's in a different place, but it still requires somebody who brings I think a style of leadership that is built around some core principles. And one of which again, is just common sense seeing through a lens that is solutions-oriented and principled, but also oriented around trying to find the common ground, which in this environment where the country is very divided, that can be really challenging.

Lee Strubinger:
Yeah. In that ‘04 race, you talked a lot about then Senator Daschle at the time losing touch with South Dakota. You've done it for 20 years, but how are you going to maintain that touch with the state in the event that you would become majority leader or at least the leader of the Senate GOP?

John Thune:
I think the key to that is just being present and anybody who knows me well for the past 20 years or so, as you said, that I've been in the Senate knows that I live here in South Dakota when Congress is not in session.

I'm out here in many cases getting around the state and interacting with people in very normal settings. And it is where I derive my energy and my sense of the grounding and the balance that I think you need to do the job out there because Washington on any given day is a huge bubble and you can get caught up in that bubble.

And what keeps life real for me is being out here with my family, my kids, my grandkids, my neighbors, my constituents and interacting with them in normal settings. I think people know they've seen me at events.

I was at State B basketball tournament in Aberdeen on Saturday or Friday I should say. And so it's just really, you have to make the effort, Lee. And I'm not saying that it's always easy, but you really do have to make a determination that if I'm going to stay in touch with people, I've got to be out here in the kinds of places where you can interact with people in a normal setting. We've made a very conscious effort through the years to do that, and I would expect to continue to do that.

Lee Strubinger:
Could you talk a little bit about your endorsement of former president and likely GOP nominee Donald Trump? Are you going to campaign for him at all? Is this just vocal support? What does that look like for you?

John Thune:
Well, we'll see what it looks like. I became convinced, particularly after the South Carolina primary where Nikki Haley, when she lost her home state decisively, it was clear to me that he was going to be the nominee. And I said all along I would support the nominee.

And so I have had a couple of conversations with him, and the key is obviously if he's the next president and if I were successful in being the next in the Senate, you have to be able to work together.

We've got some big challenges ahead of us that are going to require, as I said, some strong leadership and ability to find solutions and solutions hopefully that represent the consensus of where the country is, which is hard because the country's very divided, but my support, there is a recognition that as a potential leader in the Senate, you've got to be able to work with the leader of your party, and particularly if he's the next president of the United States,

Lee Strubinger:
How do you read his comments that were directed towards Russian President Vladimir Putin to do whatever the hell you want to NATO countries that don't pay up? Does that concern you at all?

John Thune:
Well, yeah, those aren't comments that I certainly condone or concur with. I just think that our allies around the world are really important. And I think Winston Churchill once said, the only thing worse than fighting wars is fighting wars without allies.

And I just think that the NATO alliance has been a very successful alliance. I agree with the former president that those countries need to pay their fair share and some of the larger ones, including France and Germany, have yet to do that, to get up to what the NATO benchmark is in terms of contributing to the national security of their country and to the alliance.

So he has a point there. But no, I mean I don't agree with that at all. I think that the alliance has been very successful now for a better part of 80 years in preserving peace, not only in the West, but around the world. And allies matter particularly in dangerous times, and we certainly live in dangerous times.

Lee Strubinger:
Is Congress committing an error by not funding aid to Ukraine and some of those other allies? What do you see as the path there? I mean, I know the last time we talked was about the U.S. border deal. In conjunction with that, what do you see as the path forward for funding for these allies and specifically Ukraine?

John Thune:
Well, ideally it would also entail addressing the issue, the national security issue at our southern border. And I think that was attempted, but not at a level that was satisfactory. And I remind people that you've got a Democrat president and a Democrat majority in the Senate.

So a deal that you got wasn't going to be everything that you wanted, but it wasn't enough to satisfy, I think where a lot of our members were in terms of securing or getting operational control of the border. So that's an important thing, and it will be addressed.

And obviously the next president, if it is President Trump, he'll have a lot of tools at his disposal to do that, which he used last time to great effect and which President Biden departed from. But as a matter of just support for what's happening in Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia, I think the thing people have to keep in mind, and boy I hear it a lot across South Dakota, there are a lot of folks out there who don't believe that we ought to be engaged in so-called foreign entanglements or never ending wars, et cetera.

But you just can't forget the lessons of history. We've seen this picture before, and I come from a generation, my dad was a World War II fighter pilot. My uncle was at Pearl Harbor when he got hit on December 7th, 1941. My other uncle was in the OSS, he was a Marine, was brought into the OSS and became part of Under Water Diver team number 10, which did a lot of the amphibious and advanced the amphibious landings in the Pacific.

It's a generation that, so those things that were, I guess taught to me growing up is that you have to always, American leadership is needed on the world stage. And I think Ukraine is an example of that right now. And as much as people disagree with it, what I always tell them is we can do either one of two things. We can give Ukraine the weapons to fight their own wars, which they've been doing very effectively, and they have a tremendous spirit and willingness and determination to succeed there.

Or if we don't help them now, we can send Americans sons and daughters to that region of the world when Russia rolls through Ukraine and the tanks start rolling into Poland or one of the other of our NATO allies.

So it's really to me, fundamentally about whether or not that alliance that has defended and protected the West for the last 80 years is going to continue to play that vital role and whether or not American leadership is going to be a part of the solution to keeping not only Europe, but the entire world safer and stronger and more secure for future generations. So it's American weapons or American blood, and I choose American weapons to let the Ukrainians fight that battle on their own, and they're doing it really quite well if we'll just give them the support they need.

Lee Strubinger:
Switching gears a little bit, the House passed a bill to sell TikTok or it gets banned in the U.S., kind of passed out with a pretty big head of steam. The president has indicated that he would sign the bill if it reached his desk. What do you see as the likelihood of that being taken up in the Senate?

John Thune:
I think if it gets taken up, it'll pass overwhelmingly the question is, and Chuck Schumer is the Democrat leader in the Senate, so he controls and sets the agenda and regulates what comes to the floor in the Senate.

So I don't know exactly how he's going to handle it, but I would say that if he does bring it up in the Senate, that it will pass overwhelmingly. And I think there's an argument there for if it's not an outright ban, and I think the House bill allows one, it's not immediate. There's basically a ramp there of six months to allow ByteDance, which is the parent company of TikTok to sell the company to American owners. And that probably would be the best solution overall. But what I would say is this won't be the first, nor will it be this isn't the first, nor will it be the last technology that a foreign adversary is putting forward.

And that represents a national security threat to the American people. I think that if nothing else, what this does is because ByteDance is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party, American people's information if asked for or required by the CCP would be furnished. And that represents a national security threat and a personal and private security threat to literally tens of millions of Americans who are on that TikTok app.

So it's a national security issue. And when you view it through that lens, then you realize that the actions get taken need to reflect that concern. And so either the House bill, even though it's been much discussed and somewhat controversial, if it gets put on the floor of the Senate, and that'll be the decision made by Sen. Schumer who is the Democrat leader in the Senate, I think it'll pass overwhelmingly.

Lee Strubinger:
One final question. Is there any kind of movement on a next round of the Farm Bill that you're watching and what's kind of update there?

John Thune:
It's slow right now and not looking good at the moment, but that can change. I had been hopeful that there would be some meeting of the minds early this year where we could get on track to get the bill done by the Sept. 30 deadline, which is when the extension of the current bill expires. That looks now, at least at the moment, maybe not all that likely, but like I said, I think that could change. There's a big difference of opinion about how to allocate resources and what the priorities in the Farm Bill ought to be. And many of us who represent agricultural states or states where production agriculture is a big part of our economy, believe that the Title one commodity title of the bill ought to be a major focus. Obviously conservation also a big title is very important here in South Dakota for many reasons.

But the Democrats on the committee, and particularly the chair of the committee, is focused more on climate and on the nutrition side. And so I think there's a path forward, but it will entail there being some meeting of the minds.

And at least right now, the ranking Republican and the chair of the Democrat chair of the Senate Ag Committee are still at odds about how best to proceed. So I would say at the moment we're in a little bit of a lull, but I'm hoping that that will break at some point here and we can proceed.

I think better than having nothing is an extension of the current bill, but producers need certainty, they need predictability, and they need a Farm Bill that works for them. And I think a multi-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill is really important and we should try and get it done and get it done as soon as possible.

Lee Strubinger:
Great. Senator, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

John Thune:
Lee. Good being with you. Thank you.

Cara Hetland is the Director of Radio and Journalism Content for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
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.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.