A Southern Baptist congressman’s rapid rise to power in the Republican Party hit a snag on Thursday, when Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) lost a runoff vote to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a bid to become House Majority Leader.

The 122-109 ballot signaled a major change in Republican leadership and rejection of current leaders.

Blunt is a member of First Baptist Church in Branson, Mo., and former president of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. He was handpicked as House Republican whip in 2003 by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and had filled in as acting majority leader since DeLay was forced to step aside after being indicted Sept. 28 in Texas on charges of violating election laws.

Though low key and affable in public, in contrast to DeLay’s hard-driving style, Blunt is considered just as conservative and won favor of the party’s right wing.

“House Republicans have an opportunity this week to do something meaningful to keep their majority,” columnist Wes Vernon wrote in a Sept. 30 column endorsing Blunt on the conservative Web site Renew America.

In the end it may have been Blunt’s ties to Republican insiders, particularly those linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, that led to his defeat. Abramoff recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating bribery in Washington. Abramoff admitted to exchanging campaign contributions and other assistance in exchange for favors for his clients.

In 2003 House Speaker Dennis Hastert wrote a letter urging Interior Secretary Gale Norton to block an Indian casino opposed by rival tribes represented by Abramoff, just one week after Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for the Illinois Republican’s political action committee.

Hastert was joined in his letter by other powerful House Republicans, including DeLay and Blunt, who also got campaign funds from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff.

Mike Casey, spokesman for Campaign for a Cleaner Congress, a Democrat-linked organization that has looked at Blunt’s political donations and his connections to DeLay, called the majority leader vote “a pretty hard rebuke.”

“I think what it means is that the House lobbying scandal has claimed another victim, and that victim was Roy Blunt’s leadership ambition,” Casey told the Joplin (Mo.) Globe. “Even for members of Congress who love the perks, who love the trips, Roy Blunt was a little too close to the lobbyists and influence peddlers. He was too close even for them.”

Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., former House ethics committee chairman who was behind the panel’s three admonishments of DeLay in 2004, said the election was really about DeLay.

“This election’s about trying to change the image Republicans have,” Hefley told the Washington Post. “Tom DeLay, whether guilty or not, was dragging the party down.”

“There was a desire to get as far away from Tom DeLay as possible,” Hefley added to Knight-Ridder newspapers. “Roy Blunt could not overcome his close association with DeLay.”

Boehner is also well known to Washington’s lobby community, but he ran on a campaign promising reform in seeking the post. Boehner was criticized for accepting donations, parties and trips from Sallie Mae, the nation’s biggest provider of student loans, as it lobbied the House Education and the Workforce Committee, of which he is chairman, and in 1995 reportedly distributed six checks from tobacco PACs to members on the House floor.

Blunt, 56, rose quickly through party ranks since first winning election in 1996. DeLay, also a Southern Baptist, tapped him as his top deputy in 1999, and Blunt replaced DeLay as whip, the person in charge of counting and nailing down votes, when DeLay became majority leader in 2003.

Raised on a farm near Springfield, Mo., Blunt taught high school government and history before becoming involved in Republican politics. In 1984 he became Missouri’s first Republican secretary of state in more than 50 years.

Blunt lost in the GOP primary for governor in 1992. For the next four years he was president of Southwest Baptist University, where he graduated in 1970 and had served as a trustee since 1985 until being named president. A building there bears his name.

In 2002 Blunt tried to help tobacco company Philip Morris by amending a homeland security bill to stop the smuggling of contraband cigarettes. At the time Blunt, who had earlier in the year divorced his wife of 31 years, had a relationship with a lobbyist for the company, Abigail Perlman, whom he later married.

Blunt has three children, including Missouri’s current governor, Matt Blunt.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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