By Alexander Bolton - 12/13/11 06:52 PM EST
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a veteran of Republican leadership circles, narrowly defeated Tea Party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to become vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Blunt was elected, 25-22, to the fifth-ranking post in GOP leadership by a secret-ballot vote Tuesday at the Republican policy lunch.
“Certainly I’m disappointed, because I think this was an opportunity to show the country that Republicans got the message from the last election,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus who backed Johnson.
DeMint, a leading conservative in the upper chamber, said a victory for Johnson would have shown voters “that our party is open to the ideas of fiscal sanity that were paramount in the last election.”
Centrists, however, said Blunt would help Republican leaders get things done if they capture the majority by reaching across the aisle to recruit Democratic votes.
“If we take the majority, Roy knows how to run a majority,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who served on Blunt’s whip team in the House and voted for him Tuesday. “He regularly had a coterie of 15 to 20 Democrats in the House that would vote with him. I see Roy as playing deep within the Democratic zone on key votes.”
Blunt served for six years as Republican whip in the House and shortly as majority leader after former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stepped down because of legal difficulties.
Blunt will assume his first elected leadership post in the upper chamber on Jan. 26. Republican senators also voted to elevate Sen. John Thune (S.D.) to chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, replacing Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and for Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) to take over for Thune as Republican Policy Conference chairman. They will also take their posts in January. Blunt is succeeding Barrasso as conference vice chairman.
Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and John Boozman (Ark.), two lawmakers who served with Blunt in the House, gave the nominating speeches for him.
Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a rising conservative star with a national profile, and Dan Coats (Ind.) delivered supporting remarks for Johnson.
Blunt told reporters after the vote that he would be able to draw on his relationships in the House to improve relations and coordination between the two chambers.
“I’m going to do what I can as an individual to be sure that we’re communicating effectively with the House, that we’re understanding what’s possible on the House side,” he said.
Blunt said one of the first things he would do in the wake of the race is schedule a meeting with Johnson to find out what he learned about the priorities of the lawmakers who supported him.
Johnson congratulated Blunt and pledged to work with him in the months ahead. The Wisconsin senator said he was motivated to run because of his concern for the nation’s fiscal situation.
But he acknowledged that he was “disappointed with the result,” adding that it would have been helpful to have an “independent voice” in the leadership.
“There aren’t a lot of folks like me here, that come from the private sector, never having been involved in politics,” he said.
Media observers and some Senate aides cast the race as a contest between the GOP establishment represented by Blunt and the populist, conservative strain of the party represented by Johnson and the Tea Party.
Blunt served as Missouri secretary of state from 1984 to 1993 before being elected to the House in 1996 and the Senate last year.
Johnson spent 31 years building a plastics company he founded with his brother-in-law before stunning then-incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in an upset victory last year.
Some conservatives panned Blunt’s victory as a win for Washington insiders and politics as usual.
Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, a prominent conservative blog, wrote: “Sen. Blunt is a fine guy, but he is decidedly on the side of the old guard that has a shown a lack of initiative on ideas.”
Erickson urged his readers to contribute to the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee run by DeMint, to help elect more conservatives to the chamber.
Some conservatives said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quietly steered support toward Blunt to keep a potentially disruptive voice out of leadership meetings.
Johnson unexpectedly brought Senate proceedings to a halt earlier this year when he staged a sit-in on the floor to protest the failure of Democrats to put forth a budget.
“McConnell likes to control who sits in the room with him, and that’s what happened today,” said a Senate GOP aide. “He’s decided that he doesn’t want competing opinions or strong voices. He wants a hand-picked team that will quietly carry out his decisions.”
An aide to McConnell, however, denied that the GOP leader played any role in the race.
DeMint said Tuesday’s election shows “we’re a few votes short in the Senate, and that’s what the Senate Conservatives Fund is all about.”
He said “a lot of folks in both parties … would like to continue the status quo.”
Blunt ran a stealthy campaign and officially announced his decision to enter the race only last week.
He declined to publicize the names of his supporters — in contrast to Johnson, who revealed endorsements from 14 colleagues.
Senate aides predicted Blunt’s victory before the vote, speculating that he would not have officially announced his bid had he not already locked down the votes.
Conservative activists favored Johnson, who earned a 91 percent scorecard rating from Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, over Blunt, who scored 64 percent.
FreedomWorks and ForAmerica, two conservative activist organizations, endorsed Johnson, as did Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review magazine.
Updated 7:55 p.m.