The GOP's Surprise Ending

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John Boehner on Capitol Hill after being elected House Majority Leader yesterday

Ohio Republican John Boehner's upset victory today in the race to replace Tom DeLay as House Republican majority leader is a perfect reflection of the GOP's current quandary—the party recognizes the need for real reform ahead of midterm elections next fall, but also fears too much of it. After all, for Capitol Hill, where incumbency usually rules the day, Boehner's second-round win by a margin of 122-109 against front-runner and current Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri for the party's number two spot amounted to storming the Bastille. "Boehner looked as shocked as all of us," said Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona after the vote. But at the same time, the Ohioan's own longstanding and close ties to K Street lobbyists virtually guarantees that he'll keep the fundraising machine DeLay so skillfully built up running smoothly as his party heads to November's expensive political battles. In essence, the Republicans managed to vote both for and against a break with the DeLay era.

Even if he really wanted to, Boehner, 56, would have a tough time leading a Republican revolution. Thanks to a House GOP conference vote yesterday to limit the leadership positions up for grabs, the 15-year veteran of the House will be sandwiched between the old guard, with Dennis Hastert of Illinois staying in the top job as Speaker of the House and Blunt keeping his post as number three in the party hierarchy. "Bluntís a good man, but he couldn't overcome the relationship with DeLay," said Joel Hefley, a congressman from Colorado who was ousted as head of the House ethics committee early last year after it repeatedly rebuked DeLay for questionable behavior.

Still, it wasn't change for change's sake that Republicans were after with today's vote. The real issue for the GOP is how many members lose their jobs in November, and whether the party could actually lose control of the House along with them. Republicans are still trying to gauge whether voters will care more about moving the Republican agenda forward or giving the appearance of a clean break with the DeLay-tainted past.

Blunt, as the acting Majority Leader since DeLay stepped down to face money-laundering charges in Texas last fall, had continuity on his side. "A lot of people supporting Blunt are doing so hoping for consistency," said one senior leadership aide the morning before the vote. "They want someone who knows how to run a conference and who has experience in that role." The real agent for change in the race was Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, who had stayed true to his roots as a member of the class of 1994, which swept Democrats out of power on a promise of (literally) cleaning house. Still, Shadegg was never a serious contender, too inexperienced in leadership to quell concerns about his election-year effectiveness. Blunt was the favorite going into the vote today—and he laid it on thick in public statements the week before the vote, touting his near 2-to-1 lead in public commitments over Boehner. But Boehner made a strong case Monday at a conference of House conservatives in Baltimore, impressing a lot of key votes—including those rebels who were supporting Shadegg. Boehner apparently carried all of Shadegg's votes in the second round, turning a 110-79 deficit in the first tally into ultimate victory.

Some party operatives tried to leave the impression that Thursday's vote had no relevance for the November election. "No matter who the majority leader is, things are going to get done," says Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. But other insiders were less sanguine about the prospects in November. "Scandal trumps all," said one senior Republican aide, "that's the problem." Democrats, for their part, are happy with the outcome. As Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put it, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."