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On that list are stalwart conservatives such as Coburn and Vitter, as well as 2010 freshmen elected with substantial tea party support, among them Lee and Rubio. But Johnson’s backers also include some established Republicans who have been arguing for more bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, including Corker and Chambliss, who is a “gang of six” member and the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee.
“I was pretty encouraged by Members calling me up and encouraging me to run and then going on record,” Johnson said of the support he’s received. “That’s a pretty good sign.”
The Conference vice chairman position opened up when current members of leadership opted to try to move up the ranks in the wake of Senate Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander’s (Tenn.) decision to voluntarily relinquish his position in January. Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) is running to succeed Alexander; current Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) is campaigning to replace Thune.
A Republican operative with relationships in the Senate confirmed that members of the GOP leadership team as well as the establishment wing of the Conference would be more likely to favor Blunt over Johnson for the vice chairman post. But having Johnson in the leadership fold might also be an attractive way to provide the more conservative members of the Conference some confidence that their concerns are receiving proper attention.
Senate Republican leaders have previously tried to recruit Coburn to run for vice chairman, but the Oklahoman demurred because he did not want to give up his independence. Blunt conceded that he is still determining if serving in leadership is worth “giving up the joys of being a free agent.” However, many Republicans believe he is keen on running for one position or another.
The Republican operative credited Johnson with accruing an impressive list of endorsements but said they could dry up as Members ponder Blunt’s possible candidacy and hedge their positions in a contest that will be decided by secret ballot. Senators are notorious for guaranteeing their vote to one Member in a leadership race and then voting the other way in the end.
“I wonder if, in the end, Ron Johnson doesn’t expect to win but is trying to force a discussion of the issues,” the Republican operative said. “He represents the younger guys’ views that the Senate isn’t functioning properly.”