How Much Change for Republicans?

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The race to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader may not be the only change at the top looming for Republicans in Congress. While front-runner Roy Blunt of Missouri tries to fend off challenges from Arizona Republican John Shadegg and Ohio Representative John Boehner ahead of the Feb. 2 vote, there's been a quiet push, led by California's Dan Lungren, to force an election of all of the GOP leadership jobs—except for Speaker Dennis Hastert, who is popular among members. "We need some new vision at the leadership table," says Anne Northup, a GOP member from Kentucky who has called for elections. In fact, the race itself has quickly become a referendum on whether the House needs dramatic change in leadership, which both Shadegg and Boehner say they would bring, or just a new leader who can move the GOP's agenda effectively, which is the campaign pitch of Blunt. Both Boehner and Shadegg have jointly suggested Blunt should step down from his job as Majority Whip and allow a separate election for the number three leadership post. And while each has sharply attacked earmarks as pork barrel projects that should be limited, Blunt has defended the value of the controversial spending provisions, which are used to fund specific projects in a congressman's district.

The growing reform sentiment has helped Shadegg's dark-horse candidacy build momentum. Almost immediately after his entrance into the race , Shadegg became the favorite candidate of people who wanted a sharp break from DeLay, winning several newspaper endorsements, praise from conservative commentators like Bill Kristol and Bob Novak and the backing of conservative bible National Review. But over the last week, he's begun picking up support from people whose opinions actually matter in the leadership race, Republican members of Congress. Mike Pence, the head of the 110-member Republican Study Committee, a group of the House's most conservative members, has backed Shadegg, a former RSC chair, as has the duo of Arizona conservative Jeff Flake and New Hampshire moderate Charles Bass, who have been leaders in pushing both for DeLay's ouster and the House drastically reforming its rules. "We need more reform than proposed by the first two candidates," says Flake.

Still, Blunt does seem to have a commanding lead, with the public support of 91 Republicans—leaving him very close to the 117 needed to win—and his aides have said he has private commitments beyond the 91 that ensure his victory. So like a football team sitting on a lead, he's running a low-key campaign, mainly just talking to members on the phone to gauge their support. By contrast, Boehner and Shadegg have run more aggressive campaigns, with frequent television appearances and endless e-mails from their staffs highlighting endorsements and positive press they are receiving. As for their support, Boehner has only 47 members publicly backing him and Shadegg isn't releasing a tally.

With his apparent lead, Blunt could quickly win the election, which is conducted by secret ballot among the GOP's 231 members. But if he doesn't get the 117 immediately, it would bring a second runoff with either Blunt and Boehner. In his public statements, Boehner has seemed to be positioning himself for that possibility, suggesting that people who support Shadegg are calling for the same kind of dramatic change as he is. But it's not clear how closely allied Boehner or Shadegg's boosters are, or if the combined vote of Shadegg and Boehner could overtake Blunt. "It's a dynamic situation," says Flake.

In the next week, all three candidates will continue campaigning. The conservative Study Committee has a retreat on January 30-31 where each will speak, as well as conservative icons Donald Rumsfeld, Newt Gingrich and George Will. And all three already have plans on Feb. 1 to speak to the Tuesday Group, a coalition of GOP moderates. Neither the moderates nor the conservatives, however, are likely to make a single endorsement en masse, since clusters of each have already endorsed different candidates. Which just goes to show that the once unified congressional Republicans, left to their own devices, can be as fractious a group as their famously divided Democratic colleagues.