Sen. John Thune agonized over running for re-election after clashing with former President Donald Trump, and now a conservative group is polling South Dakota Republicans in a bid to gin up a primary challenger.
Within 48 hours of Thune, R-S.D., announcing his re-election campaign Saturday, the American Potential Fund began polling the state’s likely GOP voters. The survey determined Thune could lose a primary by 9 percentage points to Gov. Kristi Noem and could face a spirited challenge from Dusty Johnson, South Dakota’s lesser-known U.S. representative, according to a polling memo, obtained by NBC News, that the political committee circulated to donors and political insiders Thursday.
The South Dakota survey — conducted by one of Trump’s pollsters, Tony Fabrizio — is the latest salvo in the ongoing effort by some in the GOP to purge the party of those seen as insufficiently loyal to the former president. Trump and his allies have successfully encouraged primary challenges to Republican incumbents in states such as Georgia, Wyoming, Michigan and Ohio, particularly targeting members of Congress who voted with Democrats to impeach or convict the former president over his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, inflamed Trump in December 2020 by criticizing the effort of House GOP lawmakers to overturn the results of the presidential election, saying the plan “would go down like a shot dog.”
An infuriated Trump responded by bashing Thune, calling him a “RINO” or “Republican in Name Only,” on Twitter.
“RINO John Thune, ‘Mitch’s boy’, should just let it play out. South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!” Trump wrote.
He also encouraged Noem to run against Thune.
Noem, who is running for re-election this year, is widely viewed in Republican circles as a possible future presidential candidate, and has not indicated an interest in running for Senate at this stage.
A spokesman for Noem did not return a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Thune.
“It doesn’t matter what the polls say, I’m not running for Senate,” Johnson said in a written statement.
Trump has also been angry with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his criticisms of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and for the Republican leader’s vote to certify the election of President Joe Biden.
“McConnell’s not on the ballot. But his No. 2, Thune, is,” one Republican who had spoken with Trump about the senators said on condition of anonymity to describe the former president’s thinking.
Republican strategist Scott Reed said that, “ultimately, Trump is trying to get to McConnell. But the reality is he can’t. He’s the longest-serving leader of his party in the Senate for a reason: he plays the long game.”
As for Thune, he said, the senator has an intimidating war chest — nearly $15 million on hand — and it’s unlikely he’ll have a serious challenge. But, he said, the MAGA world-led primary purges of the GOP could prove problematic in battleground states or districts because it could weaken the party and drain resources needlessly.
Trump’s criticisms of Thune may have damaged him in the state among Republican primary voters. According to Fabrizio’s poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters, a third hold an unfavorable view of the three-term senator while 62 percent view him favorably. In comparison, Noem is liked by 82 percent of primary voters and disliked by only 16 percent. Johnson is also better liked than Thune in the poll.The poll’s error margin is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
But Thune’s Republican colleagues in the Senate urged him to run again, including McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Trump ally who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is in charge of electing Republicans.
“We’re glad Sen. Thune made the decision to run for reelection and are extremely confident he’ll have a big win in November,” the committee said in a written statement.
Marc Caputo is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.