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National Eye on GOP Leadership Race

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Roy Blunt (above) has seen growing grass-roots support for his opponent, tea-party-affiliated Sen. Ron Johnson, in the race for Republican Conference vice chairman, which will be decided today.

Senate Republicans are set today to elect a new Conference vice chairman in a race that has attracted little attention inside the Beltway but has become a fixation for conservative activists nationwide.

The influential tea party organization FreedomWorks became the latest conservative group to endorse Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) over Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) for the No. 5 GOP leadership position, and the group urged activists to flood Republican offices with phone calls advocating for the Wisconsin freshman. Nebraska Senate candidate Don Stenberg (R), backed in his competitive primary by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), also endorsed Johnson on Monday. Whether the pressure from activists tips the race in Johnson's favor remains unclear, considering Senators will be casting secret ballots in the race.

"The grass-roots pressure seldom works. Only rarely can you influence a secret-ballot vote with outside contact," said a Republican lobbyist who has relationships in the Senate and has observed leadership elections for more than two decades. Added this individual: "I hear it is very close."

Senate Republicans are scheduled to vote during their weekly policy lunch, which kicks off at 1 p.m. in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room on the second floor of the Capitol. The minority caucus also will select a new Conference chairman and a Policy Committee chairman, but Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.), respectively, are running unopposed for the No. 3 and No. 4 leadership posts. Both are expected to be promoted without a hitch.

The race for Conference vice chairman has attracted what Republican insiders say is unusual fanfare for a relatively minor post because conservative activists have deemed it a proxy fight between the tea party and the GOP establishment. Both Johnson and Blunt were elected last year. But Johnson was a career businessman who made his first bid for public office in 2010, while Blunt is a 15-year Capitol Hill veteran who previously served in House leadership.

Johnson's backers include RedState.com founder Erick Erickson, whose Monday post on the race was headlined "The Conservative Fight of the Year Goes On," a handful of conservative activist groups, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and a few Senate candidates running in competitive GOP primaries, including Florida's Adam Hasner and Michigan's Clark Durant. But none will have the power to actually vote for Johnson. Only his 46 GOP colleagues can do that, so he will need the support of at least 24 to prevail today.

Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of 14 Republicans who have publicly endorsed Johnson, has been whipping for his colleague from the Badger State.

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