Tea Party Vs. Establishment in Senate GOP Leadership Race

Posted September 28, 2011 at 2:49pm

Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) has quickly secured the support of conservatives in his bid for GOP Conference vice chairman, but Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) could still prove to be a tough opponent in any head-to-head matchup if leadership members and other establishment Republicans side with him.

Blunt said Monday that he is still considering whether to join Johnson in the race for the fifth-ranking Republican leadership position. The Wisconsin freshman, who has already obtained 11 public endorsements, indicated in an interview with Roll Call on Tuesday evening that he is prepared to handle competition in an election set for early January.

“That’d be fine. Certainly I appreciate serving with Sen. Blunt,” Johnson said. “I would bring a slightly different perspective” to the position.

Johnson was elected in 2010 in his first bid for public office. The wealthy Republican spent the previous three decades running an exporting and manufacturing company and is an accountant. Blunt, also elected last year, spent the prior 14 years in the House, during which he served as Whip and for a brief time as acting Majority Leader.

Blunt’s leadership experience and pragmatic streak could make him an attractive alternative to Johnson among current leaders, centrists and establishment figures in the Senate Republican Conference. The Missourian is a deputy on Sen. Jon Kyl’s (Ariz.) Whip team and also might be valued for his strong relationships with House Republicans and his understanding of how the other chamber operates.

“Johnson is always a big critic of how things are being run, but he has yet to show that he understands how to get things done in Congress,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “Just being a vocal critic may not be enough of a selling point to a caucus that wants to see real results on some very tough issues.”

Johnson’s office declined to discuss its strategy for whipping votes or how many endorsements the Senator might have beyond those that have been publicized. Johnson suggested he is doing his own whipping, saying he has called every Member of the Republican Conference to discuss his candidacy and ask for support in addition to having conversations on the floor.

Meanwhile, GOP sources confirmed that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party favorite and chairman of the Steering Committee, has been urging Senators to back Johnson for Conference vice chairman. Johnson’s supporters include Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.); Saxby Chambliss (Ga.); Tom Coburn (Okla.); Bob Corker (Tenn.); Mike Enzi (Wyo.); Lindsey Graham (S.C.); Mike Lee (Utah); Rand Paul (Ky.); Marco Rubio (Fla.) and David Vitter (La.).

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.”