Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) talked with reporters in the hallways off the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon shortly after he bested Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in the race for Senate Republican conference vice-chairman.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, in which the 15-year Capitol Hill veteran discussed the significance of the race for tea party groups, his relationship with his former colleagues in House Republican leadership and what it means that the three Missouri Republicans running for Senate next year declined to endorse his bid.
Q: Senator Johnson said the race was close. Is that your impression?
“I think with 47 people, it’s always going to be close. I’ve actually never run for any office of any kind where there’s only 47 people making the decision. So, I understand why senators really don’t like these contested leadership elections because you know everybody, you’re constantly with everybody. And I thought Ron Johnson had a lot to offer; he worked very hard. ... I don’t know what (the vote count) was, but I’m glad that I get this opportunity. The first meeting I’m going to schedule is with Ron Johnson sometime tomorrow to talk to him about what he and I both learned by talking to all 47 of our colleagues. And you know, we’ll see what it takes to move forward.”
“I think a couple of things that members were telling me and I suspect they were telling Ron – one thing is that they’d like to see a more consistent, more broad-based communication using all the communication tools available to us, the social media as well as the traditional media. They’d like to see a more consistent communication message with the House. And I think probably, in looking at what we need to do now and what we hopefully will have a chance to do in the future, that my experience with the rules of the House and the members of the House, the leaders of the House and, frankly, the senior staff in the House brings a helpful thing to the leadership table. And as I said out there, I thought there were lots of good reasons to vote for Ron, and a couple of good reasons to vote for me, and the majority decided to vote for me.”
Q: Do you think you were helped at all by the outside pressure that was for Johnson, and that maybe senators don’t like people trying to influence them?
“I don’t know. Traditionally, that would be my view, that members of the Senate or the House, of neither one respond very well to outside involvement in these elections. But I don’t know whether it was helpful or not.”
Q: Does your decision and your election to this post now mean that you’ll run for it again in November, after the elections, when there’s going to be another slate, or might you seek a higher position at that point?
“We’ll see what happens in November. I’m interested in being part of a majority in the Senate. I’m going to do everything I can in the next year to see that, one, we get a chance to be in the majority – Republicans in the Senate – and, two, if we get that opportunity, we’re ready for that opportunity. And I think that means more long-term strategic thinking. More focus on strategy, less focus on tactics. In the minority, the day-to-day things that you do are critically important. In the majority, the long-term things you do are critically important. And I want to be sure we’re beginning to think in the long-term as well as the day-to-day survival of the minority. What do we do today that would get us ready if we have a chance to be in the majority a little over a year from now?”
Q: Several tea party groups – FreedomWorks and others – have made this race a really big priority. Erick Erickson said this was the most important race that’s facing the country right now. What’s your message to those groups?
“Well, if it’s the most important race in the country, I’m glad I won it. And you know, Erick Erickson – he had positive things to say about me and Ron Johnson. And I’m glad that people on that side could generally say positive things. All four of the nominators today said good things about both of us – Mr. Isakson and Mr. Boozman for me and Mr. Coats and Mr. Rubio for Ron. I was pleased with the tone that those nominating speeches set. And you know, this is not about what happened yesterday. This is about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m very much inclined to be a next-chapter guy instead of a last-chapter guy. But I’m going to take advantage of the last chapter in talking to Ron Johnson and he and I comparing notes about what we learned talking to our 45 colleagues and then talking to all of them again about what they’d like to see – after having had to think about the leadership choice – what they’d like to see the leaders do between now and the first of next year and during next year.”
Q: This was cast as a race between establishment and tea party, and FreedomWorks even put out these talking points that called you an old-guard establishment leader. What’s your take on that assessment and also your response to that characterization?
“Well, I’ve been called worse things than that, and quite often, as a matter of fact. I’m going to talk to my colleagues about what they think. And really, what some candidate for the Senate in Michigan thinks or Nebraska thinks is not really, I think, all that significant.”
Q: Should this be viewed as a disappointment for the tea party?
“You’d have to ask them. I hope that six months from now they’re not disappointed. And what people feel about this today is not nearly as important as what they’ll think about it after we have a chance to see how the new leadership team works and whether or not I bring anything to that team that wasn’t there before. I think we both had things to offer, we just had different things to offer. And I intend to take full advantage of the things Ron Johnson has to offer as somebody I’m going to look to for advice. I consider him a friend. In fact, I was asked to make some comments today, as the others who were elected were. And at the end of my comments, I asked Ron Johnson if he’d want to come up and say whatever he wanted to say for as long as he wanted to say it. And he was magnanimous in his comments.”
Q: A lot of your colleagues here, when they were coming out, the colleagues who said they voted for you pointed to your House tenure as an asset in this race. Do you also see that as an asset and how did that play in this race?
“I do. In the minority, what happens in terms of a final product isn’t nearly as significant as it could be in the majority. And if we get into the majority, understanding the rules of the House, the members of the House, the senior staff of the House, what it takes from Day One to put legislation together that the most moderate senator and 218 Republicans in the House can vote for is the key to what you have to do to move forward with legislation.”
Q: Did it make any difference to you personally, senator, that the challengers for the Republican nomination for the Senate in Missouri didn’t deign to endorse you?
“No, they have their own race to run. And I thought that was the right decision for them to make. Actually, I happened to be talking to somebody yesterday, I think the guy running for the Senate in Michigan that endorsed me got six percent in the last poll that came out about 72 hours ago. So, you know, I’ll live with that.”
Q: You have a long history with leadership in the House, from serving over there. How would you characterize your relationship with Speaker Boehner and Eric Cantor today?
“Good. Good. Eric was my deputy. Abby and I saw Eric and Diana at dinner the other night. John Boehner and I work well together, and I am confident that’s what he would say. And a lot of that staff, both Eric’s staff and John’s staff, have worked for me at some time in the last 10 years, and those relationships, I think, will be helpful as well.”