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GOP Leadership Races Test Popularity, Savvy

In Congressional leadership races, personality and experience still trump grass-roots pressure.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) defeated Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) 25-22 on Tuesday in a close race for Republican Conference vice chairman despite the near-universal support his Badger State rival received from conservative activists and tea party groups nationwide. Blunt was viewed as the choice of the Republican establishment; Johnson, elected with substantial tea party support in 2010, the favorite of conservative activists.

Johnson promoted himself as a candidate who could bring a fresh voice to the leadership table; Blunt emphasized his 15 years of experience as a legislator and member of GOP leadership in the House.

Although the contest symbolized a battle of the old and new guards within the Republican Party, the Senators who voted in the secret-ballot election said they viewed the race as a choice between two good friends with different strengths, a theme likely to carry over to the next round of leadership races, scheduled for after the November 2012 elections.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Johnson supporter, downplayed suggestions that her colleagues were divided along ideological lines.

“The Senators in the room felt that this is an election between two good Members of the Conference, and that was certainly the discussion that we had. It was very constructive and very positive,” the New Hampshire Republican said. “We couldn’t lose either way.”

Republicans also appeared to cast their votes with an eye on the Senate majority. Republicans need to net at least four seats in 2012 to take control of the Senate, and the electoral map appears to favor the GOP at this point in the election cycle.

“I think Roy is not only well-suited for the current time, but most importantly if we take the majority,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), a Blunt supporter who served on the Missourian’s Whip team in the House. “Roy knows how to run the majority.”

In addition to electing a new Conference vice chairman, the No. 5 leadership post that assists in political messaging, Republicans on Tuesday promoted Sen. John Thune (S.D.) from Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 position, to Conference chairman, the No. 3 slot. They also advanced current Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) to Policy Committee chairman. Current Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is set to relinquish his leadership post in January.

But in less than a year, Senate Republicans will meet behind closed doors to once again select a slate of leaders. Those elections — which could feature several competitive races, including one for the No. 2 Whip position — are likely to be more contentious by far than the just-concluded contest for Conference vice chairman. Running for Whip are National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), who currently serves as Chief Deputy Whip under retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.). Thune, who might also run for Whip, said Tuesday that he has not made any decision about running for re-election as Conference chairman. He said several factors could influence the next round of Senate GOP leadership elections.

“It has a lot to do with how effective we are over the course of the next year in, one, working and shaping our legislative agenda and then communicating that, and obviously that’s going to mean tying in with whoever our nominee for president is,” Thune said. “I think it’s all going to come down to how we govern and how we lead and how we come across to the American people.”

Conservative activists and members of the tea party movement could weigh in on leadership races next year, particularly as the campaign for Whip heats up, something that is expected to happen by the summer.

And despite the flurry of grass-roots support for Johnson, there was a sense from Republican observers that leadership races would continue to be governed by internal factors rather than outside pressure.

Johnson, speaking to reporters after the vote, thanked his activist supporters but stressed that his backers within the Conference were ideologically diverse.

“Some people are trying to turn this into, ‘We’re a divided party.’ Let’s face it, I had a lot of support across a broad spectrum of our Conference,” Johnson said.

Blunt noted that campaigning by outsiders has proved to be ineffective over the years, and he speculated that that was the case this time around. And, a former GOP leadership aide said, potential candidates for next year’s leadership contests need to focus on relationship-building and legislative and political effectiveness, not pressure from the outside.

“The Conference still votes for leadership races based on experience, popularity and ideology,” the former GOP leadership aide said. “It means that Senators who are trying to move up must immediately develop positive relationships and not just simply brag about conservative backgrounds.”

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