Ellsworth Saved, Thune Ascendant

Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. That proverb sounded particularly inapt in South Dakota yesterday when the Base Re-Alignment and Closure Commission announced that Ellsworth Air Force Base would be removed from the list of military facilities facing closure or significant reductions. Everyone knew that in this case, success and failure only had one father — the man who unseated the Senate’s Democratic leader on the promise to keep it open:

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sat tense, crouched and glowering as the base-closing commission delivered its verdict about Ellsworth Air Force Base in the ballroom of a Crystal City hotel yesterday, then leapt up gleefully when the bomber base’s death sentence was commuted.
The 44-year-old’s political career may have been spared as well.
Last fall, Thune unseated Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in part by claiming that a Republican tight with the White House would have a better chance of saving the perennially impaired Ellsworth, a Cold War arsenal in the middle of the prairie. So it was potentially calamitous for Thune back home in May when the Pentagon put Ellsworth on the list of closure recommendations for the independent Base Realignment and Closure commission.
Thune, a former House member whose status as the Daschle slayer has made him a popular speaker before GOP groups, had long told the White House that losing Ellsworth — South Dakota’s largest employer after the state government — was the one issue that could make him a one-term senator.

Part of the political issue facing Thune came from the efforts by both men in the Senate campaign to cast themselves as the Savior of Ellsworth. Certainly some politics have gone into these BRAC decisions, but not to the extent that most people feared. To the extent politics plays, both men would have had influence, Thune as a politician close to Bush, and Daschle as a politician with plenty of clout in his role as Minority Leader. The final vote, however, provided a bit of irony for both men — at 8-1, the decision had less to do with partisanship than with the objective facts regarding the value of Ellsworth, both to the nation and to South Dakota.
The result for this exercise, however, will be nothing less than a political bonanza for Thune. He barely edged Daschle in a state that saw Bush thump Kerry by 21 points. That reflected South Dakota’s reluctance to change horses at any time, midstream or on either bank, especially given Daschle’s considerable influence on behalf of their state. Now that he has delivered on Ellsworth, he will command a much higher standing in future elections; in fact, he should bury the next challenger the Democrats put up against him. The GOP may also now blow out Tim Johnson in 2008, who barely squeaked by Thune in 2002 with Daschle’s help.
Thune may well have cut himself some national chops as well. He went toe-to-toe with the White House over Ellsworth, positioning himself to the right on other issues to threaten the White House agenda if Ellsworth closed. Most notoriously, he withdrew his support of John Bolton, but considering his staunch support of judicial nominees and his reliable conservativism, his independence might get him some thought for a national role in 2012 if he wins re-election in the preceding cycle.
The Democrats in South Dakota, however, have to know that they just lost their last fulcrum on statewide power. The Ellsworth closing would have provided their only rescue in the deeply conservative Plains state. That 21-point Bush win will begin to show up in House and Senate races for the foreseeable future. Does Thune get the credit for all of that as well? Perhaps he shouldn’t, but half of politics is just being there when good things happen.

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