Washington (CNN) - It was tea party vs. the establishment in a closely-watched race for an obscure Senate Republican leadership post - and the establishment won.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a former top leader in the House and long time presence on Capitol Hill, defeated tea party-backed Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin for the fifth-ranking Republican leadership position in the Senate Tuesday.
The race between the two freshman senators drew wide attention with tea party activists eager to see if Johnson could win a seat at the leadership table, where key decisions about legislative policies, tactics and strategies are hammered out daily.
"I think it is important to have an independent voice, an outside perspective at the leadership table. That's why I ran," Johnson said.
The votes were cast by secret ballot during a closed-door meeting of the Republican conference in the Capitol. By tradition, the final tally will be kept private, senators said.
"I'm sure this was a very close vote. We're getting close. We just need more allies," Johnson said. "I don't want people getting disgusted or discouraged. I want them energized. I want to make sure they're staying involved so we can bring more people here in 2012."
Blunt said he was "grateful" for the opportunity to serve his colleagues and hoped to help Republicans win back the majority in next year's election.
The leadership post became vacant after Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he would not run to retain his third-ranking position next year. Other current members of the GOP leadership – Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming– moved up, leaving the fifth-ranking position as the only contested post.
Republicans will have to pick a new number two leader next year after Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona retires from the Senate and leaves his minority whip post vacant.