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South Dakota Senator on the Defensive

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One Republican who plans to vote against Bolton is freshman Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Thune's announced reason is that Bolton is not the best person for the job. Thune's opposition came after the Pentagon decided to recommend the closing of a major Air Force Base in his state. He says there is no link between the two, but the closing was devastating to Thune. In his campaign against former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Thune argued that he would be in a stronger position to protect the base. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Of all of the shutdowns recommended last month by BRACC, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, none has generated the political fallout as the inclusion on the list of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. Not only is it the state's second largest employer, it was a reason Thune said voters should cast out Daschle, the most powerful politician in South Dakota, this from a televised debate last October.

(Soundbite of October debate)

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): Tom's been in office for 26 years. He hasn't done anything to add a mission or to expand the mission of Ellsworth Air Force Base.

NAYLOR: Now barely six months after unseating Daschle, Thune's argument that he would have the ear of the president when it came to protecting Ellsworth has come back to haunt him.

Mr. STEVE HILDEBRAND (Democratic Political Consultant): Apparently Senator Thune does not have the ear of the president, as he suggested he would.

NAYLOR: Steve Hildebrand is a Democratic political consultant in South Dakota and was Daschle's campaign manager last fall.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Certainly the partisans are out there saying, `I told you so,' for good reason. I think, you know, people are pretty upset. This is something that is brought up in conversation everywhere you go in this state.

NAYLOR: Daschle would not comment for this story. During the campaign, he argued that as minority leader, he was able to keep Ellsworth off an earlier closure list and could do so again. But now it's Thune representing South Dakota in the Senate. In an interview in his Senate office, Thune says he believes most people in his state do not blame him for the latest closure recommendation.

Sen. THUNE: There are folks who want to, you know, score political points, obviously, who are trying to make some hay with it. But I think most South Dakotans understand the way the process works. Sure, there are some who say because Senator Daschle created this expectation based on what he said he did in '95 that you can just pick up the phone and use political influence to change the decision. But that's a very different model than what has been adopted by this administration.

NAYLOR: The White House says the base closing list is out of its control, but that hasn't stopped the suggestion that a decision by Thune, normally a party loyalist, to oppose the Bolton nomination is political payback. Not so, says Thune.

Sen. THUNE: Others have tried to create a linkage. What I have simply said is that, one, I don't think he's the best person for the job. Two, that I do take very seriously our diplomatic posture in this country, and I take very seriously our defense posture. And right now, are they totally unrelated? You know, possibly not. But the reality is the decisions that I'm making right now are decisions that I believe to be in the best interests of the people that I represent in the state of South Dakota and in the best interest of our nation.

NAYLOR: Thune was a somewhat reluctant participant in the Republican campaign to oust Daschle. Two years earlier, he lost by just 524 votes to South Dakota's other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson. It took a White House dinner with the president to persuade Thune to take on Daschle. But if he feels at all abandoned by the president now, Thune isn't letting on.

Sen. THUNE: The frustration I guess I have is yes, this happens in my first six months in office, and now it's something that we have to deal with. But that is where we are, and I can't--you know, I'm not blaming anybody for it. I'm blaming the Pentagon for making a bad decision. But we are going to do everything we can now, we're putting all the wheels in motion, to try and reverse the decision.

NAYLOR: Thune has co-sponsored legislation with lawmakers from other states affected by potential base closing to delay them until the troops return from Iraq. But if the base is closed, it's likely the resulting job cuts will be an issue when Thune is up for re-election in 2010. Political science Professor Robert Burns of South Dakota State University believes the political fallout will be mixed.

Professor ROBERT BURNS (South Dakota State University): The decision to close has, at the very least, been an embarrassment to Senator Thune. I do not think, however, that it's eroded his political base among those that initially supported him. It has provided an opening for his detractors and his critics to bring questions regarding his performance to the front again.

NAYLOR: For now, Thune says his office is all consumed by the effort to reverse the recommendation to close Ellsworth, but he knows the odds of success are long. Just 15 percent of the bases recommended for closing in the last round of cuts survived. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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