John Thune might be the most powerful and least conspicuous politician in Washington.
The lanky former college basketball player has spent 14 years assiduously climbing the Senate GOP’s ranks to ascend to Mitch McConnell’s whip starting next year. It’s a job fraught with opportunity and peril: The chance to become a leading spokesman for the Republican agenda and dealmaker in divided Washington, which will almost certainly require occasionally breaking with a certain sharp-tongued president down the road.
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If Thune can strike that balance well, the South Dakota Republican could eventually position himself for McConnell’s job, if and when the Kentuckian eventually calls it quits. For now though, Thune is showcasing his Midwestern nice, talking up outgoing Whip John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) own leadership prospects to cool any thoughts of future drama.
The 57-year-old Thune — who stormed into the Senate in 2004 by defeating Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in a stunning upset — has more immediate worries: Namely a shutdown fight over President Donald Trump’s top priority. After that, he’ll play a leading role in protecting a half-dozen Republican incumbents on the ballot in 2020, in states with large numbers of the kind of suburban voters who lashed out at Trump in the midterms.
“We’ve got to execute,” Thune said in an interview after winning the whip’s job, aware that he and the GOP majority will be under new scrutiny as they go from electoral offense to defense in 2020.
Thune comes in with a chairman’s pedigree after running the Senate Commerce Committee for four years. Though a conservative, his mild-mannered politics contrast with the bare-knuckled partisan jabs of outgoing whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a two-time chairman of the party’s campaign arm.
The South Dakota senator isn’t as close to Trump as Cornyn is, yet. He describes a warm relationship with the president and aligns with Trump on the border wall and the president’s opposition to legislation protecting Mueller.
But he knows they won’t always see eye to eye. If it makes the most sense for his members, Thune is willing to put distance between himself and the president, as he’s done occasionally on issues from trade to foreign policy to immigration.
“We need to look for opportunities to partner with him. But I also think there are times where you may be in different places. And that’s where you’ve got to speak out,” Thune said.
“I’m not going to be, probably, somebody that is on every issue: ‘Whatever you say.’ That’s just not my style,” Thune added. “There are times when you express your differences and do it in a way that’s respectful, understanding there’s always another fight around the corner.”
Thune likes Trump’s policies on the economy, judges and deregulation, and he acknowledges that his role as one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington will be executing the president’s agenda. That means long days perfecting the whip counts on nominees, keeping watch on the Senate floor and working over recalcitrant Republicans.
But Thune also recognizes that the Senate is an independent institution. He mostly ignores the president’s Twitter controversies and concentrates on — to use one of the many sports metaphors he’s partial to — putting “points on the board” with bipartisan legislation.
The outlook for that is cloudy: Perhaps Thune can help strike a deal on roads and bridges or improving nationwide wireless networks. After that, he acknowledges the legislative agenda looks “thinner,” with a brutal fight approaching before Thune even gets his new office.
Trump wants billions for his border wall when the next spending bill is due by Dec. 7, and he’s refused to rule out a partial government shutdown to get what he wants. Thune agrees this is the best opportunity for Republicans to wring some money out of Democrats on border security, but the word “shutdown” makes him recoil.
“The idea of a shutdown to me, is like” — Thune says, cringing to make his point. “The president in the past has expressed a view that if that’s what it takes to get his wall funding, he’s willing to go there. But I don’t think that probably helps.”
Cornyn speaks about the wall fight in similar terms, hoping cooler heads will prevail. Republicans and the president can expect a similarly optimistic outlook from Thune, in contrast to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s calculated, unemotional style.
“There’s going to be a fair amount of consistency” between Cornyn and Thune, said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is close to GOP leaders. Differences between the two “are more stylistic” than substantive.
Though he’s tight with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) from their time in the Senate gym, Thune has some networking to do. As the No. 2s in their respective conferences, he and Schumer’s whip, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will handle much of the behind-the-scenes work of running the Senate floor, and they have little experience working together.
“I haven’t really tested the waters with him on anything,” Durbin said.
There is some irony to Thune’s rise: By beating Daschle, he became the first insurgent to defeat a Senate party leader in more than 50 years. From there Thune moved quickly up the ranks of the Senate’s calcified leadership structure. Eventually, he could be party leader.
But just a few hours after taking Cornyn’s job, Thune lavished praise on the term-limited Texan, dousing any fears of a cold war over who will succeed McConnell, who has vowed to run for reelection in 2020.
“John, if the opportunity comes along sometime in the future, I suspect will want to take a shot at being leader. Certainly, I think he’s paid his dues,” Thune said.
Cornyn returned the favor, giving Thune’s nominating speech for whip during the private caucus meeting. He also dispensed advice: Sometimes the whip is most effective by delegating someone else to do the arm-twisting or cajoling.
“The truth is that our success doesn’t just depend on one person. It depends on the team effort. And part of that is to find out who the best person is to talk to a senator who might be able to get them on board,” Cornyn said.
Of course, no one is more important than Trump, whose political prospects are intertwined with keeping the Senate majority and its ability to unilaterally confirm lifetime judges and restock his ever-changing Cabinet.
To do that, McConnell’s new deputy wants a message of economic prosperity from Trump, not necessarily the dire immigration warnings and culture wars that turned off suburban voters this fall.
“The independent voters that were with him and have moved away from him a little bit can be pulled back,” Thune argued. “It’s in his own political self-interest and in the interest of our majority here in the Senate when he starts to focus on … jobs, economy, growth and tax relief and regulatory relief.”
There are signs the president is listening: He’s talking optimistically about working with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), wants a bipartisan criminal justice deal and is looking for movement on infrastructure.
First, though, Thune and other Republicans might need to convince the president that a shutdown will distract from all that, and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to take what they can get from the Democrats even if it’s not the entire “big, beautiful wall” Trump wants.
“There will be probably be a certain amount of give and take. There are things that the Democrats want … I think that’s doable,” Thune said. “But we’ll find out.”