The Hot Race Nobody Is Talking About
A battle for the soul of the Republican party?


Andrew Stiles

The Iowa caucuses are still weeks away, but those in search of a hotly contested GOP election need look no farther than the Capitol this Tuesday, when Senate Republicans will select a new vice chairman of the GOP conference.

What may seem like a relatively mundane affair (vice chairman of the conference is the lowest-ranking leadership position), some are billing it as a monumental struggle for the very soul of the Republican party. RedState founder Erick Erickson, for example, is touting the race, which pits Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) against Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), as “the most important fight for conservatives in America.”

Erickson and other conservative activists are aggressively backing the freshman Johnson over Blunt, who is also a first-term senator, but whose 14 years serving in the House of Representatives (including a brief stint in leadership) classify him, in their eyes, as a member of “the GOP establishment.”

“I like both senators tremendously,” Erickson writes, “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.” Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, concurs. Johnson, he argues, is “a champion for the principles of conservatives,” whereas Blunt is a “creature of the establishment.”

Johnson supporters are quick to point out the senator’s conservative credentials via the Heritage Action for America congressional scorecard: He enjoys a 91 percent rating, compared with Blunt’s 64 percent. (Heritage Action is a notoriously tough grader; Paul Ryan rates just 78 percent.)

That said, conservative support for Johnson appears to derive less from his voting record than from his status as a true political outsider — in other words, his relative lack of political experience. Johnson, who has never held political office until now, touted his extensive private-sector experience — 31 years as an accountant and plastics manufacturer — to great effect in his campaign to oust incumbent senator Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) in 2010. In doing so, he was able to win broad support within the GOP, from both “the establishment” (the National Republican Senatorial Committee) and the Tea Party, in year that saw a fair amount of infighting between the two factions.

“I thought it was important for people from the private sector, citizen legislators, to bring that valuable perspective to Congress,” Johnson tells National Review Online. “I’ve exported products. I’ve actually created jobs. And now that I’m here, I think I can bring that valuable perspective to the leadership in the Senate.”

The case for Blunt, meanwhile, emphasizes his congressional experience. During his time in the House, which included brief tenures as majority whip and majority leader, Blunt developed close working relationships with Reps. John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R., Va.). Blunt’s supporters argue that his ties to the current House leadership would be a valuable asset when it comes to the relationship between Republican leaders in the upper and lower chambers, particularly in the (likely) event that the GOP wins control of the Senate in 2012. “Since when did experience become a negative attribute?” asks one Senate aide. “You know, it actually tends to come in handy around here.”