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.”
Blunt’s supporters also note that he would bring his own unique perspective to the Senate leadership. If elected, he would be the first chairman of the Values Action Team — a congressional coalition focusing primarily on social issues — chosen for a leadership post.
“Each one has a pretty good argument to make,” observes another Republican aide. “I’d say it’s still up in the air at this point.” Indeed, most observers predict a close vote. However, another critical factor driving support for Johnson among conservatives is the perception that “the establishment” has rigged the race in Blunt’s favor. Some suspect that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) is actively whipping the vote against Johnson, a charge the leader’s office strongly denies.
The vice chairman’s slot initially became available in September when the current conference chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), announced his intention to step down from the No. 3 leadership position. Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), who holds the No. 4 spot as policy chairman, is running unopposed to replace him. Current vice chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) is expected to succeed Thune.
Johnson announced his intention to run for vice chairman just hours after Alexander’s announcement. Blunt, meanwhile, quietly began seeking support for a run of his own, but made his candidacy public only last week, after Alexander set a date for the election.
Erickson cried foul, writing: “[The election] was going to happen in January. But conservatives started gaining momentum. Naturally, Mitch McConnell had to go try to pull the rug out from under conservatives.” Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), a tea-party favorite who is backing Johnson, said he was “kind of surprised” to learn that the election was being moved up.
One Senate source contends that the decision to move the date up was made at McConnell’s bidding in a deliberate effort to help Blunt, while others insist that the vote was never officially scheduled for January and that it was Alexander who made the call. The purpose of holding the election now, they say, is to give the new leadership team sufficient time to be able to hit the ground running when Congress returns after the holiday recess.
In addition to DeMint’s, Johnson has received endorsements from Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), and Bob Corker (R. Tenn.), as well as from fellow freshman senators Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), Mike Lee (R., Utah), and Rand Paul (R., Ky.). The endorsements from Rubio, Lee, and Paul are noteworthy because those freshman lawmakers embody the tea-party/establishment rift that characterized a number of high-profile races in 2010: Each of them defeated an establishment-backed candidate to win the Republican nomination. “There’s a broad spectrum in the conference between any party,” Johnson says. “I may be on one side, others may be on the other side.”
Having only recently announced his bid, Blunt remains mum with respect to the endorsements he has received thus far. His supporters expect a close race and note that the outcomes of such elections, which are decided by secret ballot at the weekly GOP lunch meetings, are often difficult to predict, as some senators have a habit of pledging support to multiple candidates in the run-up to a vote. Johnson acknowledges the same. “I like my chances,” he says, “but it could go either way.”
The two senators agree that, however the election turns out, 2012 will be a critical year for Senate Republicans — and for the future of the country. “America is facing a critical moment, when we’re going to decide who we’re going to be as a nation,” Blunt said in a statement announcing his bid.
“We don’t have much time,” Johnson says. “It’s absolutely crucial that the 2012 election is actually a mandate election, and we’re not just running to get over the finish line.”
Whoever gets the nod on Tuesday will certainly have his work cut out for him.