|U.S. Rep. John Thune (Republican)|
Thune is a product of the plains of South Dakota west of the Missouri
River, where the population, which is never very thick, becomes even sparser.
He grew up in the small town of Murdo where Route 83 and Interstate 90
meet. His parents both worked in the school system, his father a teacher
and coach and his mother a librarian.
Thune attended college and business school at the University of South Dakota and after graduating landed a job with Sen. Jim Abdnor, a Republican he had befriended years earlier. Thune headed to Washington in 1985 to work with Abdnor until the Senator was defeated the next year by then-Congressman Tom Daschle.
He returned to South Dakota in 1989 at the age of 28 to serve as executive director of the state's Republican Party. Two years later he left that post to take a job in the administration of Republican Gov. George Mickelson running the state railroad department.
By 1993, Thune was working as the executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, a consortium of local governments working to be better represented in the state policies.
Despite his long resume and substantive ties within the South Dakota GOP, few expected his to do well, even to be the nominee, when he ran for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Tim Johnson. The 35-year-old Thune was running against the state's popular Lieutenant Governor, Carole Hillard, for the GOP nomination; few thought he'd make it the general election in November.
Hillard appeared to be the presumptive nominee. She had the endorsement of the 1994 nominee and seemed to have the backing of Bill Janklow, the popular governor. A poll released in May that year had her leading the race by 50 points. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Thune called on his old friend former Sen. Abdnor to campaign with him and soon also attracted the support of religious conservatives and cattlemen.
As the race wore on, Hillard had trouble raising funds and Thune continued to garner support. Finally, Gov. Janklow announced he would not endorse either candidate in the primary in what commentators called a clear distancing of himself from Hillard. In the end, Thune ran away with the primary win by more than 18 percentage points.
In the general election, voters responded to Thune's pledge to only serve three terms and his fiscally conservative stance (he opposed the tax cut proposed by GOP presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole, saying the country needed a balanced budget first). He faced Rick Weiland, a former state director for Sen. Tom Daschle. One paper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, summed the race up this way: "November's option is crystal clear: choose a liberal or a conservative."
Weiland, tried to tar Thune as a Gingrichian Republican -- too extreme for Dakota voters. It didn't work and Thune cruised to victory by 21 percentage points.
Once in Congress, Thune developed a conservative voting record, continuing to support measures heavy on fiscal discipline and social conservatism. His solid Republican voting, mixed with a constituent focus on agriculture, transportation and free trade policies led to easy reelection efforts in 1998 and 2000. Despite his huge electoral wins, Thune stood by his pledge to only run three times for his House seat and said he would not run again in 2002.
National GOP leaders, seeing a strong statewide candidate lobbied Thune to run against freshman Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, while others argued he should run to fill the governor's seat being vacated by Bill Janklow.
After months of consideration and, reportedly, White House lobbying, Thune agreed to take on Johnson.
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour