Sen. Ron Johnson (above) announced his intention to run for Conference vice chairman weeks ago, while Sen. Roy Blunt threw his hat in Tuesday. Some Johnson supporters say they suspect Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is behind Blunts late entry.
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.).