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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."