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Updated: 3:28 p.m.
The secret-ballot election for the No. 5 leadership post culminated a behind-the-scenes campaign that began soon after Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) announced in September that he would relinquish his No. 3 position in January.
The conference was nearly evenly split between the two men, with Blunt edging out Johnson in a 25-22 vote, according to two sources. The winner needed 24 of the 47 Senate Republicans to prevail.
Conservative activists across the country backed Johnson, lending a high-profile, tea-party-versus-the-GOP-establishment flavor to a contest that is usually a sleepy, inside-the-Beltway affair. Johnson, backed by many of the tea-party-associated freshmen whom he was elected with last year, was nominated by Sens. Dan Coats (Ind.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). Blunt was nominated by Sens. John Boozman (Ark.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
The vote was conducted during the Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunch and presided over by Alexander. Also elected to new posts were Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and John Thune (S.D.), though neither was challenged in his bid to move up.
Barrasso, the current Conference vice chairman, will take over as Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 leadership post, when the Senate reconvenes in late January. Thune, the current Policy Committee chairman, will succeed Alexander as Conference chairman.
Following the vote, Johnson released a statement thanking his Senate supporters as well as the grass-roots advocates who pushed for him.
“I realize it’s relatively audacious for someone who’s been here for just 11 months to run for leadership, but Washington is bankrupting this nation. We are mortgaging our children’s future because of a lack of presidential leadership and a do-nothing Senate led by Harry Reid. Washington hasn’t listened. I thought that having an independent voice at the leadership table would help get that message across,” Johnson said.
He added, “My colleagues chose a different path; they chose someone with different skills. I wish Sen. Roy Blunt well. I appreciate his graciousness during the race and I am committed to doing everything I can to help him succeed.”
Blunt issued a short statement saying he was honored to win.
“I hope this opportunity will allow me to continue contributing to the critical debates that we’re facing in America,” Blunt said. “If we’re going to rein in federal spending and put Americans back to work, we must work together. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues on both sides of the Capitol — including my friend Sen. Johnson — to accomplish those goals.”