Senate Republicans are poised to elect a new Conference vice chairman next week in a contest shaping up as tea party versus the establishment.
Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Roy Blunt (Mo.) are both freshman Senators elected little more than a year ago. But Johnson was elected on the strength of tea party support and represents the unorthodoxy of that movement. Conversely, Blunt has been in Washington for 15 years and served in the top echelons of House GOP leadership.
Though veteran GOP Senators said leadership elections are more akin to a family squabble settled by secret ballot — as this one will be when Members vote Tuesday — there is little question that the battle for the No. 5 GOP leadership post presents Republican Senators with a stark contrast in style and ideology. And already the tension is building, with some Johnson supporters saying they suspect Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is behind Blunt's late entry into the race as well as the decision to hold the elections in just a week's time.
Blunt acknowledged the potential for the contest with Johnson to be seen as old guard versus new guard given his 14 years in the House before being elected to the Senate last year. "I think there are lots of good reasons that people could decide to be for Ron Johnson, and I hope there are a couple of good reasons they could decide to be for me," he said.
Johnson dismissed the notion that the race will pit the tea party against the GOP establishment. In explaining to reporters his sales pitch for Conference vice chairman, Johnson said his strength in the race is the private-sector business experience and fresh voice he would bring to the leadership team given that he has served in Congress for less than a year.
"I'd like to think that people have seen me as a quiet leader, somebody who's responsible, somebody who's got good views on the issues and somebody that they can look to to help lead but also bring a different perspective to the leadership table. I think that's one of the most important parts of this race," Johnson said. "I also bring the perspective of somebody from the outside — somebody totally foreign to Washington, and that's a very valuable perspective."
The vice chairman post opened up after Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) decided to step down as Conference chairman; he will do so in January. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) is expected to succeed Alexander as Conference chairman, with current Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) moving up to replace Thune as Policy Committee chairman. Those elections are also set for Tuesday, when Republicans will meet for their weekly policy lunch.
Alexander told Roll Call that the leadership team accepted his recommendation to hold the voting Dec. 13, rather than in late January during the Conference's annual one-day retreat, to allow the winners time to prepare for their new positions. If Congress adjourns for the holidays on time, next Tuesday's policy lunch would be the last until the Senate reconvenes in the new year.
Blunt announced his bid for Conference vice chairman Tuesday, the same day Members were notified of next week's leadership vote. Johnson, who announced his intention several weeks ago, said he has no problem with the timing of the elections and saw no connection between Blunt's decision and the timing of the voting set by leadership. But some Republicans charged that it was a clear move by McConnell and his team to boost Blunt.
"I was kind of surprised hearing that [Blunt was running] and hearing that they are moving up the elections," Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) said. "Roy is a friend of mine, but Ron Johnson is what I consider the right face for the Republican Party. He's a nonpolitician, business guy, reform-minded."
"It's no coincidence that leadership announces a snap election the same day Blunt announces his bid against Johnson," a Republican Senate aide said. "It's clear McConnell doesn't want an independent-minded conservative in leadership, he wants an establishment yes-man."
That assertion was disputed by other Republicans, including aides and other GOP operatives, who said that McConnell's approach has been hands-off — although they conceded the Minority Leader would probably prefer that Blunt win. Alexander, who will preside over next Tuesday's leadership election and count the votes, said the contest was not originally scheduled for January.
There was a consensus among some Senate observers that Blunt wouldn't run if he didn't think he could win. In the House, Blunt served as Majority Whip and, briefly, as Majority Leader. And he is experienced in the art of securing the support of fellow Members for leadership posts, while Johnson is running in his first such race. Blunt has been quietly gauging Members' support for weeks.
"Blunt wouldn't run unless he had the votes, and he waited long enough to make this a quick race," said one Republican operative with relationships in the Senate. "It is clear the leadership favors him over Johnson since he has experience and also influence within the freshman class."
"I do not think Blunt would announce unless he has the votes. He knows how to read his colleagues' commitments," a GOP lobbyist added, noting that Republican Senators have a history of committing privately to a Member and then voting for their opponent. Johnson has been publicly endorsed by 11 Members, including DeMint and Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
But one Republican Senator who has spoken with both candidates about the race said Johnson shouldn't be counted out. The Senator, who noted Blunt's strengths, said Johnson's appeal as an outsider with a fresh voice shouldn't be underestimated.
"It's not done yet," this Senator said.
Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.