South Dakota Sen. Thune’s win breaks ‘curse,’ defies Trump

Senator John Thune, R-S.D., speaks after winning re-election Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Erin Woodiel/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Neither South Dakota’s “Curse of Karl” nor the invocations of former President Donald Trump weighed on Republican Sen. John Thune this week as he breezed to a historic fourth term that could see him ascend to lead the GOP’s Senate caucus.

The Republican senator, coming off a reelection victory in which he won 70% of the vote, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he wanted to stay “focused on solutions,” especially on inflation, rather than bombastic political styles that “make a point over making a difference.” It’s a conservative style that has been effective for Thune in deep-red South Dakota, which he has represented in the Senate since 2005.

Only one other South Dakota senator has won four terms: Sen. Karl Mundt, whose time in Congress from the 1930s to the 1970s inspired a joke in state political circles known as the “Curse of Karl.” Three other senators — Democrats George McGovern and Tom Daschle, as well as Republican Larry Pressler — tried to convince South Dakotans to grant them four Senate terms. They all failed, with Daschle losing to Thune in 2004.

Thune, 61, admitted to some “bare knuckles campaigns where you’re just tearing the bark off each other” over the years. But this year’s campaign was a quiet one in which his Democratic challenger came nowhere near his $17 million in campaign funds. Thune hardly acknowledged opponent Brian Bengs, an Air Force veteran and university professor, and instead ran ads that featured his granddaughter and panned President Joe Biden’s economic policies.

“Congratulations for breaking the curse,” read the cake at Thune’s Tuesday victory party.

In the campaign season’s early stages, however, the curse seemed to have some life to it. Trump had called for a primary challenger to Thune after the senator derided his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, then Thune hesitated for weeks to announce his candidacy as he considered retiring from politics.

But a potential post atop the Senate GOP leadership awaits. Thune, currently the No. 2 Senate Republican, expressed support for the current leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Thune also didn’t shy away from discussing his own leadership aspects when it comes time to pick a new leader, saying he knows how to both lay out a “clearly defined vision” for the caucus and marshal support for it.

Karl Rove, an influential Republican strategist, praised Thune at a fundraiser for law enforcement in Sioux Falls this week, telling the crowd that “South Dakota is hitting way above its weight with him in the United States Senate.”

With ballots in a handful of Senate contests still being counted, it’s not clear whether Thune’s GOP will gain the majority. Thune said he would do “whatever I can” to help Republican candidate Hershel Walker, who has a turbulent past, including allegations of violence against his family and accusations that he paid for the abortions of two women he dated. Walker’s looming Georgia runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock could determine who controls the Senate.

“I do think that there is an expectation in our country that checks and balances is a good thing,” Thune said of the push for the GOP to control Congress. “And if you have a divided government, sometimes that can present an opportunity to do some really consequential things.”

Amid the GOP’s failure to quickly sweep to victory as many expected, Thune mostly blamed the quality of the candidates that the party has put forward this year. Among some Republicans, blame has landed at Trump’s feet for trying to prove his enduring political influence by endorsing more than 330 candidates. Many of them were inexperienced and deeply flawed.

Thune, who did not receive Trump’s endorsement, said it was proof his party needed to look past the former president: “You can’t have a party that’s built around one person’s personality. You got to have a party that’s built on something that’s more durable.”