Thune once again raises idea of retirement

SIOUX FALLS — Sen. John Thune is at the peak of his career. He’s in his third term in the Senate, is the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, is wildly popular in his home state and the heavy favorite to win a fourth term next year.

So why he is considering retirement?

Thune, in an exclusive interview with the Black Hills Pioneer on Saturday, said he is still undecided about running in 2022.

“We’ll make that decision by the end of the month,” he said.

Twice this year, he has raised the idea of leaving the Senate. At 60, he has spent nearly half his life in Congress, with six years in the House of Representatives from 1997-2003 and now 17 years in the Senate.

The South Dakota Democratic Party has yet to announce a candidate to oppose him. After a narrow win over Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004, which ended Daschle’s 26-year congressional career, Thune was unopposed for a second Senate term in 2010, and faced token opposition from Democrat Jay Williams in 2016.

Thune has more than $13 million in his campaign coffers, strong support in polls and a clear edge if he seeks to be the second South Dakota senator after Karl Mundt to be elected to the Senate four times.

But on Saturday, during a casual discussion at Crossroads Book & Music, a Sioux Falls store that sells Christian books and items, he seemed weary. If he runs and wins, he noted, it means a six-year commitment.

He said his wife Kimberley wants him to come home.

“She is done with it,” Thune said.

He also marveled at Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who announced earlier this year he would seek an eighth term. Thune said he couldn’t imagine serving that long in public life.

He said he has done public events with Grassley, who is 88 years old, and marvels at his energy and continued enthusiasm for the work. Thune noted that Grassley first ran for a seat in the Iowa Legislature in 1958, three years before the South Dakota senator was born.

Thune entered politics as an aide to Sen. James Abdnor in the 1980s. He was born in Pierre and raised in Murdo, where he starred in sports. After college, he worked for Abdnor, and after Abdnor lost to Daschle in 1986, Thune served as executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, then as state railroad director for taking the post as executive director of South Dakota Municipal League.

The friendly, approachable Thune made friends all along the way, and that paid off when he jumped into his first campaign in 1996, seeking the Republican nomination for the state’s lone congressional seat.

He defeated Lt. Gov. Carole Hilliard in the GOP primary and swept to victory. Two more wins followed before he set his sights on the Senate after considering a run for governor.

In 2002, he lost a narrow contest to Sen. Tim Johnson, and considered leaving politics. But he was urged by Republicans in South Dakota and Washington to take on Daschle, and in a bitter, hard-fought and expensive race, he claimed a close win.

Since then, Thune has enjoyed widespread popularity in South Dakota and a steady rise in the Senate. In 2019, he was elected majority whip by Senate Republicans, the No. 2 post in the party. When Democrats won control in 2020, he moved to minority whip, serving under Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Thune remains healthy and vigorous, although he did seem a bit tired on Saturday. He was friendly, chatting with a reporter he has known for more than two decades about families, baseball and politics after shopping for a book in the Christian store.

In March 2020, Thune returned to Sioux Falls with flu-like symptoms. He left Washington, D.C., at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic out of an abundance of caution but was determined not to have the virus.

He appears in tremendous shape. Thune, who played college basketball for BIOLA University — formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles — is a dedicated runner who maintains a trim form.

If he chooses to run in 2022, he will be the odds-on favorite. But if he takes his wife’s advice and retires, he would leave office with multiple options for his future.

We should know the answer soon.

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