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.
“The election was to be held in January,” Erickson wrote. “The only declared candidate was Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. ... But then Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri ... announced this week he wanted the job too. Immediately after announcing his entry, Sen. Mitch McConnell moved the election up from January to next week and began whipping votes on behalf of Senator Roy Blunt.”
But Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) told Roll Call this week that the election was never supposed to occur in January, as some Johnson supporters claim, and that he set the vote for Tuesday to give the winner time to prepare for the job before Congress reconvenes in the new year. McConnell’s office noted that Blunt announced his bid after the election was set, not the other way around.
After Alexander’s office informed Members on Tuesday morning of this week that leadership elections would occur next Tuesday, Blunt announced a few hours later than he was joining Johnson in the race for Conference vice chairman. Johnson announced his campaign several weeks ago, soon after Alexander said he would be stepping down as Conference chairman in late January.
“My suggestion, which was accepted by the leadership, was that the most orderly way to do this was to deal with it before we go home so that our leadership team could have its feet on the ground and be ready to go when we come back,” Alexander said.
In addition to the election for Conference vice chairman, Senate Republicans will be voting on a new Policy Committee chairman and a new Conference chairman. Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the current Conference vice chairman, is running unchallenged for Policy Committee chairman; Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the current Policy Committee chairman, is running uncontested for Conference chairman. Alexander, the current Conference chairman, is voluntarily stepping down from the No. 3 leadership post in January; he has said he believes he can be more effective at building consensus as a rank-and-file Senator.
Later in the day, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced on Twitter that he was supporting Johnson for Conference vice chairman. Ryan doesn't have a vote because only sitting GOP Senators will be allowed to cast ballots. But it appears his public backing was intended to generate additional grass-roots pressure on Senate Republicans to support Johnson.
The House Budget chairman, who serves with Johnson as a member of the Wisconsin Congressional delegation and is a national figure among the GOP grass roots, has previously endorsed in contested Senate Republican primaries. "I'm proud to support @SenRonJohnson for Vice-Chair of Senate GOP Conference. He's a proven leader for fiscal responsibility in Congress," Ryan said in a Twitter post.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.