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GOP Leadership Races Test Popularity, Savvy

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Roy Blunt (above) defeated Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday in the leadership race for Republican Conference vice chairman.

In Congressional leadership races, personality and experience still trump grass-roots pressure.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) defeated Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) 25-22 on Tuesday in a close race for Republican Conference vice chairman despite the near-universal support his Badger State rival received from conservative activists and tea party groups nationwide. Blunt was viewed as the choice of the Republican establishment; Johnson, elected with substantial tea party support in 2010, the favorite of conservative activists.

Johnson promoted himself as a candidate who could bring a fresh voice to the leadership table; Blunt emphasized his 15 years of experience as a legislator and member of GOP leadership in the House.

Although the contest symbolized a battle of the old and new guards within the Republican Party, the Senators who voted in the secret-ballot election said they viewed the race as a choice between two good friends with different strengths, a theme likely to carry over to the next round of leadership races, scheduled for after the November 2012 elections.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Johnson supporter, downplayed suggestions that her colleagues were divided along ideological lines.

“The Senators in the room felt that this is an election between two good Members of the Conference, and that was certainly the discussion that we had. It was very constructive and very positive,” the New Hampshire Republican said. “We couldn’t lose either way.”

Republicans also appeared to cast their votes with an eye on the Senate majority. Republicans need to net at least four seats in 2012 to take control of the Senate, and the electoral map appears to favor the GOP at this point in the election cycle.

“I think Roy is not only well-suited for the current time, but most importantly if we take the majority,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), a Blunt supporter who served on the Missourian’s Whip team in the House. “Roy knows how to run the majority.”

In addition to electing a new Conference vice chairman, the No. 5 leadership post that assists in political messaging, Republicans on Tuesday promoted Sen. John Thune (S.D.) from Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 position, to Conference chairman, the No. 3 slot. They also advanced current Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) to Policy Committee chairman. Current Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is set to relinquish his leadership post in January.

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