Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a supporter of Mitt Romney, won a Senate GOP leadership post Tuesday over tea party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
The secret balloting elevated Blunt, a former House leader and Romney's chief advocate on Capitol Hill, to vice chairman of the GOP conference, the fifth-most senior position in the party's caucus.
Senate Republicans also elected Sens. John Thune of South Dakota chairman of their conference and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming chairman of the Senate GOP policy committee, the third and fourth most senior party positions, respectively. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky heads the GOP in the Senate, followed by Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is retiring at the end of next year.
The Blunt-Johnson race was considered symbolically important, a test of tea party clout a year after the libertarian-leaning movement helped drive Republicans into the House majority. Blunt is one of the most established Washington Republicans and controls what is widely considered the best GOP fundraising network of anyone in the party not running for president.
The conference vice chairmanship position carries little power or responsibility other than to spread the Senate Republican leadership's message ahead of the 2012 elections. But it often is a stepping stone to higher positions in the seniority-driven chamber.
Blount was House majority whip and briefly majority leader before Republicans lost their House majority to Democrats in the 2006 election.
Johnson announced his candidacy soon after Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said in September that he would relinquish the position at the end of the year. Johnson was endorsed by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a prominent figure in the tea party movement.