Earlier this year, Sen. John Thune suggested he’d likely stay out of a potential Republican primary for South Dakota’s other U.S. Senate seat.
But Thune is now taking public steps to boost one of those candidates, former Gov. Mike Rounds, as he faces off against three other contenders.
In recent months Thune has given Rounds money, introduced him to fellow Republican senators and says he’s likely to do more for the former governor’s campaign.
The support, Thune said, is because he believes Rounds is “a very viable candidate” who would help Thune’s goal of making sure “an electable Republican” wins the party’s nomination.
"My goal in this is to have an electable Republican come out of the process so we can get the seat back in 2014," Thune said.
Thune didn’t disparage any of the other candidates in the race. He gave advice to both Annette Bosworth and Larry Rhoden before they entered the race, and talked to Rep. Kristi Noem before she decided not to run. He hasn’t spoken to Stace Nelson, the most recent Republican to enter the U.S. Senate race.
"I don’t discourage people from running," Thune said.
Rounds, though, was urged to run when the two men talked last year.
In a statement, Rhoden said he has “great respect for Sen. Thune” but is running for Senate because “people across all parts of South Dakota have encouraged me to run because they want a conservative leader who will stand up to the Obama Administration and the Washington establishment of both parties.”
Nelson, who will formally enter the race on Sunday, said he doesn’t “begrudge the good senator his rights to support any candidate of his choosing.” He argued he, or other candidates who are further right than Rounds, have “an excellent chance of being able to win in the general election.”
Bosworth could not be immediately reached for comment.
Thune’s Heartland Values PAC gave Rounds’ Senate campaign $5,000 in June. Rounds also got more than $40,000 from other members of the Senate in the second quarter of the year, something he chalked up to Thune’s introductions in Washington, D.C.
"In Washington, what we’ve learned is, unless you have the support of the other member of your party who’s already in Congress, the chance of actually getting endorsements or assistance from other members of the Senate is nearly impossible," Rounds said. "Without John’s endorsement and introductions it would have been very difficult to have obtained support (from Republican senators)."
In May, when asked if he would endorse in the Senate primary, Thune said it was unlikely.
"I have a hard time featuring a scenario where I would be in the middle of something like that," Thune told the Argus Leader editorial board.
This week, Thune said he wasn’t likely to be too vocal in his support for Rounds.
"I don’t intend to play heavily in the primary, but I also am going to do what I can to make sure we get to that ultimate goal," he said. "We’ll probably do some other things to help out (Rounds). But when it comes to a full-throated endorsement in the race, it probably remains to be seen. I’ll be sitting and watching very carefully how this thing emerges."
Rounds said he understands why Thune hasn’t been more vocal.
"He’s done his best not to try to appear publicly as a promoter of my candidacy, so much as offering approval of my candidacy," Rounds said. "I think that’s good, because if you want to run for the office, you should do it on your own terms."
Bob Burns, a retired South Dakota State University political science professor, said Thune’s low-key approach to supporting Rounds seems to make sense.
"He’s following a good strategy in having a low-profile level of support for Mike Rounds," said Burns. "Of all the announced Republicans to date for the Republican nomination, Mike Rounds is the most electable and viable."
But Burns said there is the potential for backlash against Thune from South Dakota Republicans who aren’t fans of Rounds.
"I am a bit surprised, however, he would thrust himself in the middle of a Republican primary," Burns said. "It usually has a lingering effect and could erode some of his support within the Republican ranks."
That support, however, is extensive. A May poll by Nielson Brothers Polling found just under 90 percent of South Dakota Republicans approve of John Thune’s job performance.
Noem, South Dakota’s other Republican members of Congress, is remaining neutral in the Senate race after deciding not to run herself.
"It wouldn’t surprise me if a member of Congress decided to stay neutral, because they really have very little to gain by coming out and creating any kind of animosity among other members of the party," Rounds said.