John Thune set to make history

U.S. Senator John Thune

With Election Day just over a week away, U.S. Senator John Thune is strongly favored to win reelection, with a recent independent poll finding that he leads Democratic challenger Brian Bengs by a 58-27 margin.

Thune’s reelection campaign began in January, when he announced his candidacy, ending widespread speculation that he would retire. As this blog wrote at that time, Thune would have been only the fifth U.S. Senator from South Dakota to retire, and the first to walk away while in good health and likely to be reelected.

Instead, Thune is on a clear path to set a different historical milestone. With a victory next week, he will join Karl E. Mundt as the only South Dakotan to be elected to four terms in the U.S. Senate. (Three other U.S. Senators from South Dakota sought fourth terms and lost: George McGovern, who lost to Jim Abdnor in 1980; Larry Pressler, who lost to Tim Johnson in 1996; and Tom Daschle, whom Thune defeated in 2004.)

Assuming he is reelected, Thune is also seen as a potential successor to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Thune would be the second South Dakotan to lead a U.S. Senate caucus, following the man he defeated in 2004, U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, who was Democratic Leader from 1995-2005.

A fourth U.S. Senate term for Thune will also put him into the “Over 25” list that this blog wrote about last year, as his three U.S. House terms and four U.S. Senate terms would total 30 years (assuming he completes a fourth term).

In addition to his longevity, Senator Thune is among the most successful political figures in South Dakota history. He is the only U.S. Senator from South Dakota to be elected unopposed (in 2010), and in contested general elections, he has recorded three of the top ten results in state history.

Election forecasting website FiveThirtyEight.com gives Thune a greater than 99% chance of victory, projecting that he will win 64.3% of the vote. That result would put Thune’s victory very much in line with the 65.7% won in 2020 by U.S. Senator Mike Rounds in his reelection bid, and would place Thune alongside Rounds among the top ten biggest contested U.S. Senate wins in South Dakota history:

YearWinner%Runner-up%
1984Larry Pressler (R)74.50%George Cunningham (D)25.50%
2016John Thune (R)71.80%Jay Williams (D)28.20%
1978Larry Pressler (R)66.80%Don Barnett (D)33.20%
1966Karl Mundt (R)66.30%Donn Wright (D)33.70%
2020Mike Rounds (R)65.74%Dan Ahlers (D)34.26%
1992Tom Daschle (D)64.90%Charlene Haar (R)32.50%
1950Francis Case (R)63.90%John Engel (D)36.10%
1944Chan Gurney (R)63.90%George Bradshaw (D)36.10%
2008Tim Johnson (D)62.50%Joel Dykstra (R)37.50%
1998Tom Daschle (D)62.10%Ron Schmidt (R)36.40%

This list sets aside Thune’s 100% uncontested performance in 2010. Among these two winners, eight were incumbents seeking reelection. The two exceptions, Pressler in 1978 and Case in 1950, were popular U.S. House members seeking a first term in the U.S. Senate in open seat elections.