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Group sponsors pro-Thune ads

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

By Bob Mercer

Capitol correspondent

PIERRE -- A group representing chemical manufacturers spent at least $100,000 on television ads in South Dakota in recent weeks promoting U.S. Sen. John Thune.

The Republican doesn’t face re-election until 2016. He didn’t have an opponent in 2010. He defeated Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

Thune and his staff were not notified in advance the ads would be airing, according to his spokeswoman. She said no one from the senator’s office has asked why the ads are running.

“Our office has had no role in the commercial and only found about it as it started to air across South Dakota,” Thune’s communication director Andi Fouberg said.

The political purpose of the ads is not apparent from the content seen by TV viewers.

The backstory of the ads, however, is that a major struggle on toxic chemicals is under way in Congress while the chemicals industry is poised for a potentially major U.S. expansion.

The Thune ads are sponsored by the American Chemistry Council. The council supports Senate legislation sought by chemical manufacturers.

The council ran similar ads for a total of eight Senate and House members. The ads come as Senate and House committees consider legislation that would overhaul federal laws on toxic substances.

The council, meanwhile, issued a study in 2011 that predicted low prices for shale gas would make U.S. sites attractive for chemical processing.

Ethane, a product of shale-gas development and an important component of chemical manufacturing, is less expensive than naphtha used by overseas companies.

The names of 25 Democrats and Republicans so far are on the list of co-sponsors of the Senate legislation, S. 1009. Thune, the No. 3 member of the Senate Republican leadership, isn’t among the co-sponsors. Neither is South Dakota’s other senator, Democrat Tim Johnson. The TV ads in South Dakota are airing just for Thune.

A spokeswoman for the chemistry council answered some questions emailed by a reporter but didn’t answer several inquiries about why Johnson wasn’t featured. Johnson is retiring rather than seeking re-election in 2014.

The ads praise Thune for supporting economic growth and job creation, and urge viewers to call the senator’s office to say he’s doing a good job.

The council also purchased ads with similar content about Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. Udall and Hagan are co-sponsors.

The council also ran ads for three House members, including Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who is chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The council issued basically identical news releases about all eight.

The House of Representatives has been considering legislation seeking major changes in toxic-chemicals safety laws since 2010. The House bill is different than the Senate bill, according to a memo recently issued from Democratic staff for the House committee that Republican Upton chairs.

Thune would seem to be considered a ripe target by the council. On various occasions, he criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulatory agencies under Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Senate bill, known as the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, was introduced by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., before he died. The main Republican co-sponsor is Sen. David Vitter, of Louisiana. Vitter is the highest-ranked Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where the Senate bill is under consideration. Five committee members are co-sponsors, but the panel’s chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, is not.

Thune doesn’t appear likely to add his name as a co-sponsor. He is waiting to see what happens with the Senate bill, according to a spokeswoman.

“Sen. Thune is aware of the legislation and will take a closer look if the legislation passes out of committee and is considered on the floor,” Fouberg said.