In a sign of how nervous the Republican Party is about its image -- and about retaining its majority in the upcoming midterm elections -- Ohio Rep. John Boehner beat out acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri in the race to succeed former party leader Tom DeLay.
DeLay, who is under indictment in Texas and being investigated in connection with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, relinquished his claim to the post in early January.
Going into the vote, Blunt was considered the clear front-runner, with public commitments from 100 members and, he claimed, enough additional private commitments to win outright. But supporters of Boehner and the third candidate in the race, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, said all along they believed many of Blunt's supporters were ripe for poaching -- arguing that in many cases he'd simply gotten to them first, or that they were simply backing the status quo.
In the end, Blunt failed to win on the first ballot -- sending the vote to a run-off, between him and Boehner, the runner-up. In the second vote, Boehner prevailed.
"The strategy was to win on the second ballot," said Rep. Dave Hobson of Ohio, a Boehner ally.
In some ways, Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was a compromise candidate. He campaigned as a reformer, pledging to clean up earmarks, or pork projects, and highlighting his history as a member of the Gang of Seven that exposed Democratic scandals over a decade ago. As a close associate of Newt Gingrich's, Boehner rose to a leadership role after the Republicans took control of the house in 1994, and that leadership experience made him less of a risk than a true outsider candidate like Shadegg.
After the vote, Shadegg said he believed the party would continue to focus on reform issues going forward and that he felt his entry in the race "caused the debate to change."
Clearly, the outcome reflects the importance Republicans are placing on the issue of ethics. Democrats are making the "culture of corruption" a campaign theme for this year's midterm elections. They are already casting Boehner as "more of the same," pointing out that he has close ties to lobbyists himself. In one well-publicized incident, he once passed out checks from the tobacco lobby to colleagues on the House floor.
Still, Boehner -- a golfer with a 6 handicap and a year-round tan -- was seen as more of a fresh face than Blunt, who has often been called DeLay's protege. He also has a reputation as someone who can steer complicated bills to passage, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, and who can work with colleagues across the aisle.
"I've watched him grow from a guy who just threw bombs to a great legislator," said Hobson, who's known Boehner since their days in the Ohio legislature.
After the vote, many members stressed that they hoped the leadership change would give the party a new start. "The overall view of the conference was to go with a fresh new face," said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a Blunt supporter.
Many also expressed a strong belief that the party would be united going forward, out of necessity, if nothing else. Blunt, who received a standing ovation after the vote, will retain his old position as party Whip, and will therefore work directly with Boehner.
"I have great confidence in the members to figure out what the country needs," said Blunt afterw the vote. "I am absolutely at peace with their decision."
Most members said they expected both men to quickly put the election behind them. "They have to work together because this will be a closely fought election," said Kirk.