When House majority whip Tom DeLay in 2002 succeeded Rep. Dick Armey as majority leader, he tapped his own successor, Rep. Roy Blunt. What Mr. DeLay didn't know was that three years later, the Missouri Republican would succeed him again.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Sept. 28 announced that Mr. Blunt would temporarily assume Mr. DeLay's duties as House majority leader after a Travis County, Texas, grand jury indicted the Sugar Land congressman on one count of criminal conspiracy, a felony. Outside his southwestern Missouri district, where tourists flock to Branson to see live stage shows filled with Stetsons, petticoats, and the twang of slide guitars, majority whip Mr. Blunt isn't well-known.
But in Washington, D.C., he is the king of K Street, marshaling an army of lobbyists and loyalists that regularly delivers Republican victories on the House floor. Mr. Blunt's vote-counting success rivals even that of his predecessor Mr. DeLay, who was whispered to be the best whip ever to terrorize the Beltway.
Now it is whispered that Mr. DeLay's political career may be over. The Travis County grand jury charged that he and two aides, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, filtered $190,000 from Sears, Bacardi, Cornell, and other firms (none of which are under indictment), through the Republican National Committee, then back to seven Texas statehouse candidates within 60 days of the 2002 election.
Under Texas law, corporations may not donate to individual candidates. The campaign finance watchdog group Texans for Public Justice claims the donation helped the GOP take control of the statehouse in 2002 and, through redistricting, led ultimately to the party's picking up six Texas seats in the U.S. House in 2004.
The alleged campaign finance violation isn't the only ethics controversy to dog Mr. DeLay-just the first one to produce an indictment. Others, involving nepotism and lobbyist-paid trips abroad, remain open questions. (See "No want of a nail")
Would the GOP be better off without him? No, or mostly no.
Social conservatives would lose in Mr. DeLay a pro-family champion, while the larger party would lose "a leader with a keen tactical sense, someone who could count votes, and frankly, someone who knew how to twist arms when necessary and win votes someone else might not have won," said Claremont McKenna College professor of government Andrew Busch. On the other hand, Mr. Busch said, "DeLay's problems had started becoming something of a drag on the party," with his image as a wheeler and dealer and his other ethics charges "beginning to take a toll."
Still, Mr. Busch said, the GOP cannot afford to simply toss Mr. DeLay overboard-and not only because he hasn't yet been proved guilty: "If DeLay is easily gotten rid of in this way, Democrats will quickly look for their next target."
With his own socially conservative voting record, that target could well be Roy Blunt. A five-term legislator, he had a perfect pro-family voting record last year on issues ranging from traditional marriage to unborn victims of violence, according to the Family Research Council, which tracks member votes on pro-family issues. His record this year remains intact.
But on fiscal issues, Mr. Blunt may be part of the free-spending wing of the GOP that is drawing increasing fire from within the party's own ranks. He is part of a leadership team that passed some of the largest spending increases in recent history and ushered in a return to large budget deficits.
In his new role as majority leader, Mr. Blunt faces a delicate task: holding together a Republican caucus tinged with scandal, weakened by hurricanes, fractured on spending policies, and heading into an election year. John Hancock, a political strategist for the Missouri GOP, thinks he's up to the job.
Mr. Blunt "is able to produce the same kind of agreement and results in his caucus as DeLay, but do it in a very winsome fashion," he said. "It's a leadership style that has been all too uncommon in Washington for a long time."