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Tea Party Roots May Clash With Leadership Bid

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Freshman Republican Sen. Ron Johnson says he believes he could serve in a leadership role while still voting his personal ideology.

Speaking his mind — and voting that way — strikes Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson as perfectly compatible with serving in the GOP leadership ranks, and the outspoken freshman Republican vowed not to change if he is elected Conference vice chairman.

But Johnson may find he’s wrong, Republicans intimately familiar with the inner workings of Congressional leadership cautioned. Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said as much this week when he announced he would step down from leadership in January. The challenges that plagued the independent-minded Tennessean could also signal trouble for any Republicans like Johnson who were elected in 2010 with substantial tea party support and who end up in leadership.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who served as Majority Whip and Majority Leader in the House, said Alexander would “have more leeway as an individual Member who is not a leader of the caucus.”

A senior Republican Senate aide adding that serving in leadership requires Members to give the team and the Conference at least equal consideration with their personal position when determining their actions on issues and legislation.

“These guys would have a terrible time in leadership,” this aide said when asked how the Republican Conference’s tea party favorites would fit in on the team. “It’s hard to message for the Conference if you’re a rogue.”

Johnson, a surprise winner over then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) last year, is running for GOP Conference vice chairman, the No. 5 leadership position and one in which he would be expected to help set the party’s public relations strategy. That post is opening because current Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) is running for the Policy Committee chairman slot being vacated by Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who wants to take over for Alexander.

Johnson immediately received the support of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a rising star in the Republican Party, a tea party darling and an often-mentioned presidential or vice presidential prospect. Rubio made it clear Wednesday that he has no interest in seeking a leadership position. Rubio said in an interview that he has not given any thought to whether ideological consistency is compatible with serving in leadership. But Johnson indicated that he doesn’t see it the two as mutually exclusive.

“If [my colleagues] are going to support me for this thing, I’m not going to change,” Johnson told Roll Call. “You can speak the truth very respectfully. That would be my intention.”

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