Updated 6:10 p.m. with reporting from the St. Louis Beacon's Rob Koenig.
Overcoming a late surge of tea party backing for his opponent, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was elected to the No. 5 Senate leadership post Tuesday in a close vote that pitted an experienced GOP leader against an "outsider" businessman.
"It's really important to deal with the big questions the country faces -- to do that with an open mind, but also a principled direction that our [GOP] conference believes in," said Blunt, who relished winning a leadership post less than a year after becoming a senator.
In his new role as vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Blunt gains an influential seat at the table when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his leadership team meet to make policy decisions and devise strategy. That post would become more important if the GOP takes control of the Senate after the 2012 elections.
Blunt's was the only contested race in selecting the leaders of the 47 Senate Republicans, and the stakes had been raised over the last week when some tea party activists exerted political pressure on senators to back their favorite, freshman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and depicted Blunt as more of an old-line, establishment Republican.
"I think we both had things to offer; we just had different things to offer," Blunt told reporters in the Capitol after the vote. "I intend to take full advantage of the things that Ron Johnson has to offer ... I consider him a friend."
Johnson told journalists that he was "disappointed with the result. I think it would have been very helpful to have that kind of independent voice" in the Senate GOP leadership. But he said he was not dispirited, and he intends to work with Blunt and other Republican leaders on key issues. "This really is about building consensus, not only in our conference, but in our party and really with Americans," Johnson said.
One of Blunt's strongest supporters was Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who offered high praise for the Missourian's leadership abilities. "I think Roy is not only well suited for the current time, but most importantly, if we take the majority" in the Senate, Kirk said, "because Roy knows how to run a majority," as a former House leader.
Kirk, who served in the House for 10 years and was an assistant whip under Blunt, described Blunt as "a steady leader in the House [who] brought Republicans together as fiscal conservatives who were for smaller government."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declined to say how he had voted, but told the Beacon afterward that "it was a close contest." He said Blunt had several pluses, including his leadership experience in the House, and "I'm sure he'll do a fine job."
Blunt did not appear to be fazed by the tea party surge for his opponent. Asked if he resented the characterization of him by some tea party leaders as an old-guard GOP leader, Blunt said: "Well, I've been called worse things than that."
Was his election to GOP leadership a disappointment to tea party groups? "I hope that six months from now they are not disappointed," Blunt said. Acknowledging that the vote was hardly a slam-dunk, Blunt said: "I think with 47 people, it's always going to be close. I understand why senators don't like these contested leadership elections, because you know everybody, you're constantly with everybody."
And he said there were no hard feelings between him and Johnson. "I thought Ron Johnson had a lot to offer, and he worked very hard" to get votes, Blunt said. "The first meeting I'm going to schedule is with Ron Johnson sometime tomorrow to talk about what he and I both learned by talking to all 47 of our colleagues."
In his initial public appearance as a member of the GOP Senate leadership, Blunt - introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Capitol - said "I want to do everything I can to ... get us ready to be a majority, but also to do what we can to get our work done this year and next year."
Blunt had first announced his interest in the leadership post in September, but only made the final decision to pursue the post about a week ago.
On paper, at least, Blunt was the more likely candidate. He rose to high GOP leadership positions during his 14 years in the U.S. House - elected as the Republican whip and, briefly, as the acting minority leader. On the day he was sworn into the Senate in January, Blunt became a member of the GOP whip team, helping to line up votes.
Johnson, a Wisconsin businessman before being elected to the Senate last year, had no previous legislative experience and won election with strong tea party backing. He portrayed himself as an outsider whose voice would be important in the GOP leadership. He said last year's election was "about bringing some citizen legislators, people outside the system" into the mix.
The GOP conference positions opened up when the current Republican conference chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he would step down from the GOP's Senate leadership. As part of the domino effect, the GOP policy committee chair, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was elected to Alexander's position and the current vice chair, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., was chosen to fill Thune's post.
Leadership race generates controversy, few comments, in Missouri
Blunt's success in winning the GOP leadership post generated a bit of a political stir back in Missouri -- thanks largely to the fact that not much has been said about it.
The Missouri Democratic Party has been eagerly pointing out for days that the three Republicans vying to join Blunt in Congress -- U.S Rep. Todd Akin, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and St. Louis businessman John Brunner -- have publicly been silent about his quest. All three are competing to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
"Spurned by Missouri's GOP Senate candidates, Roy Blunt was elected by his Senate colleagues today as the 5th highest-ranking Republican in the Senate,'" said the state party in a release right after the vote.
McCaskill -- a major GOP target -- joined in this morning, saying on McGraw Millhaven's radio show (KTRS, 550 AM) that she found it "curious" that her rivals hadn't weighed in on behalf of Blunt.
She also tweaked Steelman's "no spine" assertion about Brunner on an unrelated topic, and wondered if that also shouldn't apply to the silence about Blunt's contest with Johnson.
Several national news outlets have picked up on the narrative, by noting that Akin, Steelman and Brunner have each played up images as outsiders and sought to curry favor with tea party activists. Nationally, the tea party movement was favoring Johnson -- who was endorsed by fellow Republicans in his state's congressional delegation.
Missouri Republican consultant James Harris tweeted that the state's GOP senate candidates "were foolish to not endorse Roy Blunt for GOP conference vice chair."
But Akin campaign manager Karl Hansen said there were simple reasons his candidate hadn't weighed in on Blunt's quest. "There was no request for an endorsement (from Blunt)," Hansen said. "It's an internal Senate matter and Todd's not a senator yet."
Blunt did not seem to mind much either way. Asked Tuesday abut the lack of endorsement from the GOP Senate challengers in Missouri, Blunt told reporters in the Capitol: "No, they have their own race to run. And I thought that was the right decision for them to make."
Bill Hennessy, the founder and co-leader of the St. Louis Tea Party, said his group wasn't that focused on the Blunt-Johnson race, either. "We kind of pick and choose where we get involved," Hennessy said. "We're not an auxiliary of the Republican Party."
Hennessy added that he personally had preferred Johnson, but that he had no major objections to Blunt. Blunt is seen as "an establishment Republican," Hennessy said, but he also is "reliably conservative in a lot of ways -- which is a good thing."
[This story includes information contributed by Jo Mannies, Beacon Political Reporter]