Even as a heated contest for the GOP presidential nomination barrels into the home stretch, the race for Senate Republican Conference vice chairman is receiving increased attention from conservative activists intent on seeing Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) defeat Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.).
On Thursday, RedState.com founder Erick Erickson posted a column, “The Most Important Fight for Conservatives in America,” urging activists to call Republican Senators and voice their support for Johnson. Erickson said the secret ballot election for the No. 5 leadership position in the Republican Conference, set for Tuesday, should take precedence for any conservatives interested in changing Washington.
Erickson also accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of manipulating the race in Blunt’s favor, citing “actual Senators who tell me that McConnell is whipping for Blunt,” whom activists see as an establishment candidate. Johnson was elected in 2010 on a tea-party-inspired platform.
“Forget the presidential race. We can get back to it another day. This is the most important fight for the conservative movement in America right now and it happens next week,” wrote Erickson, who is also a CNN commentator. “I like both senators tremendously, but for conservatives Ron Johnson is a no brainer here. Senator Blunt’s thinking is the same thinking that has plagued Senate Republicans for a decade now — the same old ideas and same old strategies.”
McConnell’s office categorically denied Erickson’s charge, saying that the Minority Leader has not endorsed anyone and is not campaigning for anyone. Mcconnell’s office emphasized that he never gets involved in leadership races as a matter of policy. At least two Republican Senators bolstered this claim when questioned by Roll Call this morning.
“That’s not true,” one GOP Senator said, when asked if McConnell is whipping for Blunt. The two Republican Senators spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of leadership elections. Johnson, meanwhile, told Roll Call that he has “no idea” what’s going on behind the scenes and that his focus has been talking to Members — a process he described as valuable. “I’m new here,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
But conservatives remain suspicious of McConnell, saying they just don’t believe that he would take a hands-off approach to a leadership election. “Somebody like Sen. Blunt, who’s not a renegade, doesn’t run without the blessing of the guys in the room,” said a Republican Senate aide supportive of Johnson. Blunt is also a freshman elected in 2010, but he spent 14 years in the House, including a stint as Majority Whip and, briefly, as Majority Leader.
Erickson argued in his RedState post that the timing of the election was set specifically to aide Blunt.