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"As expected, grass roots have lined up behind Johnson, a citizen legislator who exemplifies the hopes of the tea party to clean up Washington," said a Republican Senate aide who supports the Wisconsin lawmaker. "Blunt continues to play an inside game and has yet to give a reason for his bid beyond the fact he's been in leadership before and feels entitled to be there again. Republicans are looking for fresh faces to lead the party forward."
Most Senate Republicans, including the tea-party-associated freshmen behind Johnson, have attempted to downplay the symbolism of the Conference vice chairman race as one pitting the party's old guard against movement conservatives. Although Republican Senators concede that this is how the race appears and accept that it might be interpreted that way, they contend the outcome will boil down to personalities and relationships, as most such elections have in the past.
Campaigning is typically a behind-the-scenes, Member-to-Member affair. That has been no different here, with Blunt and Johnson meeting with and telephoning colleagues for the past several weeks. That effort appeared on display Thursday during a vote, as Blunt spent several minutes talking privately with Sen. John Boozman on the Senate floor. The Arkansas Republican then exited the chamber with Johnson, and the two headed off together deep in conversation.
Blunt, who previously served as House Majority Whip and briefly as House Majority Leader, has declined to reveal his supporters. But Republican Senate aides and other knowledgeable GOP operatives say the Missourian would not have run if he didn't think he could rally the votes. Blunt only made his bid official last Tuesday; Johnson announced soon after Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) revealed in September that he would relinquish his leadership post in January — a move that precipitated the leadership shake-up.
"I think largely these kinds of leadership elections are sort of family matters for the 47 Republican members in the Senate," Blunt said in a statement provided to Roll Call. "They'll ultimately make this decision, and I'll be pleased with whatever decision they make."
Blunt is running as an experienced Washington hand who knows how to work the levers of power in the House and Senate to get legislation passed. The Missouri Republican has relationships in the House, where he served for 14 years. And he has proved to be adept in the past at crafting bills that can garner the consensus needed to clear Congress and be signed by the president. Blunt is banking on that experience and steadiness to win.
Johnson is running as a fresh voice that can bring a non-Washington point of view to the Senate Republican leadership team. He is promoting himself as a business owner who until recently was subject to the laws and regulations emanating from the nation's capital. Johnson has emphasized that he is more in touch with what voters are thinking, particularly at a time when Congress' approval ratings are hovering in the single digits.