Sen. Roy Blunt (above) defeated Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday in the leadership race for Republican Conference vice chairman.
But in less than a year, Senate Republicans will meet behind closed doors to once again select a slate of leaders. Those elections — which could feature several competitive races, including one for the No. 2 Whip position — are likely to be more contentious by far than the just-concluded contest for Conference vice chairman. Running for Whip are National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), who currently serves as Chief Deputy Whip under retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.). Thune, who might also run for Whip, said Tuesday that he has not made any decision about running for re-election as Conference chairman. He said several factors could influence the next round of Senate GOP leadership elections.
“It has a lot to do with how effective we are over the course of the next year in, one, working and shaping our legislative agenda and then communicating that, and obviously that’s going to mean tying in with whoever our nominee for president is,” Thune said. “I think it’s all going to come down to how we govern and how we lead and how we come across to the American people.”
Conservative activists and members of the tea party movement could weigh in on leadership races next year, particularly as the campaign for Whip heats up, something that is expected to happen by the summer.
And despite the flurry of grass-roots support for Johnson, there was a sense from Republican observers that leadership races would continue to be governed by internal factors rather than outside pressure.
Johnson, speaking to reporters after the vote, thanked his activist supporters but stressed that his backers within the Conference were ideologically diverse.
“Some people are trying to turn this into, ‘We’re a divided party.’ Let’s face it, I had a lot of support across a broad spectrum of our Conference,” Johnson said.
Blunt noted that campaigning by outsiders has proved to be ineffective over the years, and he speculated that that was the case this time around. And, a former GOP leadership aide said, potential candidates for next year’s leadership contests need to focus on relationship-building and legislative and political effectiveness, not pressure from the outside.
“The Conference still votes for leadership races based on experience, popularity and ideology,” the former GOP leadership aide said. “It means that Senators who are trying to move up must immediately develop positive relationships and not just simply brag about conservative backgrounds.”