WASHINGTON – Republicans are looking at Rep. John Thune as their best shot to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats, who hold their majority by a single seat.
Thune used the backdrop of a high school gymnasium in his hometown of Murdo, S.D., Monday to declare his intentions to challenge first-term Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said the Republican Party has a winning combination in Thune: a popular candidate hand-picked by President Bush in a GOP-leaning state.
But Rothenberg also warned that the race will not be a cakewalk for Thune.
A veteran campaigner, Johnson has won more statewide races in South Dakota than any other Democrat. His resume includes five terms in the House and a notable victory: He was the upstart who defeated sitting Sen. Larry Pressler, a Republican, in 1996. Pressler was the only incumbent to lose that year.
"This race is critical for the Republicans because it is one place where a challenger is ahead of an incumbent, and it's clearly the Republicans' best opportunity for a takeover," Rothenberg said. "They need to bring this one home."
All that said, Rothenberg and others predict a tight, bruising campaign with no clear favorite.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, called the Thune-Johnson race a "toss up."
Republicans are claiming an early lead because of the state's GOP-leaning electorate: 48 percent of registered voters are Republican versus 40 percent Democrat.
Rothenberg dismissed the idea that the GOP has a "built-in" advantage that will translate into automatic votes. Despite the Republican registration numbers, South Dakota has sent two Democrats in the Senate, he said.
"Johnson is a proven vote-getter. He's a proven commodity," Rothenberg said. "Other than John Thune, this race was probably a slam dunk for Tim Johnson."
Thune was poised to run for governor until he was persuaded by Bush to run for Senate. Bush won the state handily last year, beating Al Gore by 22 percentage points.
But tying Thune closely to Bush at a time when the nation is at war and in a precarious economic position could prove to a mistake, Rothenberg said, if the strategic attacks against Osama bin Laden fail to provide tangible results, or if the recession becomes severe.
"I don't think this is a 'gimme' at all for the Republicans," Rothenberg said. "It's a good race between two good, attractive, well-liked politicians in a small state, in a year when a single seat could determine who controls the Senate."