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.
"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.
"I have a real-world understanding of how government regulatory and tax and spending policies impact small to medium-sized businesses and the greater economy. I am running for Conference vice chair because I believe it would be helpful to have that experience and perspective at the leadership table," Johnson said in an interview with Heritage Action for America, an advocacy group associated with the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.
Though the vice chairman's role does not come with much power, it provides a seat at the leadership table and is often a steppingstone to more influential posts.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.