With Thune out, Senate contenders for White House seem unlikely in 2012

By Paul Kane
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's one of the oldest adages in Washington: Every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. But at the moment it appears that what every single senator sees in the mirror is, oddly, a senator.

The most-talked-about potential presidential candidate from the Senate, John Thune (R-S.D.), announced Tuesday that he would not seek the presidency in 2012, leaving not a single member of the world's greatest deliberative body deliberating a White House bid.

If that holds, 2012 will be the first presidential campaign without a sitting senator since the modern history of White House campaigns began more than half a century ago.

This comes just 21/2 years after a race in which one senator, John McCain (R-Ariz.), lost to another, Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who broke a decades-old curse of failed White House bids from the Senate. Vice President Biden also came from the Senate, while a handful of others were weeded out in the primaries.

Congress may take a pass altogether on the 2012 race, depending on the decisions of Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Both are conservative firebrands pondering what would amount to long-shot bids.

At a time when Republican voters have made clear their disdain for all things Washington, it's perhaps no surprise that the party's senators are likely to sit this one out. And no Democrat is going to challenge Obama.

But in the four most recent campaigns in which a president sought reelection - 2004, 1996, 1992, 1984 - at least two senators from the opposing party challenged the incumbent.

Former senator John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), who has witnessed dozens of senators trudge up to his first-in-the-nation-primary state, noted that the current crop of Senate Republicans is the victim of the "ebb and flow of the recent election cycles."

A slew of promising Republicans lost reelection bids in 2006 and 2008, when the environment ran against the George W. Bush White House, and 13 new Republicans have just been sworn in. Such newcomers are considered too green to jump into a national campaign, leaving few senators who both present the right sort of generational matchup with Obama and who are not tainted by ethical questions or burdened by unpopular votes.

"Senators have to vote on every issue. Instead of expanding their constituency, their votes tend to narrow their constituencies," said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian.

This was a problem for Thune, who in 2008 voted in favor of the $700 billion financial industry bailout that has since become anathema to conservative voters.

Thune was not considered a top-tier contender among a field filled with governors and former governors. Yet he is taller than everyone else (tall guys almost always win), more telegenic and, given his Senate service, could have argued that he's the only candidate actively fighting the Obama agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said recently that nothing should be read into the oddity of the prospect of no senators taking on Obama. "I think it just has to do with the individuals," McConnell said.

Since 1960, according to Ritchie's calculations, 48 sitting senators have launched campaigns for president and only two have won: John F. Kennedy and Obama. Five others won their party's nomination.

In 2008, a six-pack of senators joined the fray, including Democrats Obama, Biden, now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who retired last year. At the time, the party was clinging to a narrow 51 to 49 majority, making it difficult for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to schedule votes around campaign events. He frequently joked about having a "47-seat majority."

That won't be a problem for the next two years, nor will there be questions about intentions. That was a big issue in the GOP cloakroom in 1995 and 1996, when then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (Kan.) ran for and won the GOP nomination, besting three other Senate Republicans along the way.

And it's not just the congressmen showing a lack of presidential campaign interest this year. The same current is playing out among top GOP congressional aides and advisers at the national campaign committees.

Four years ago, the campaigns of Obama, Clinton, McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) were dominated by staffers who had served on Capitol Hill.

Four years later, not a single Republican aide is positioned for a key job in any aspiring presidential campaign. Most of the mid-level staff for Romney's communications shop in 2008, for instance, took jobs with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and freshman Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) rather than sign on for what is expected to be another run by Romney.

This anti-White House view will not, of course, last forever. Rubio and Brown are among half a dozen rising Republican stars in the Senate who, if the circumstances end up just right, would be prime candidates to run in 2016.

If they do, they would join a long and distinguished list of aspirants.

Just off the chamber floor, in the Senate Reception Room, hang the portraits of seven men considered the most influential senators ever, a list that includes Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Six of the seven tried and failed to win the White House.

Only Robert Wagner, the author of several key pieces of the New Deal, never sought the presidency - because, as a native-born German, he was legally forbidden to do so.

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