WASHINGTON -- Arizona conservative Rep. John Shadegg jumped into the contest to become the No. 2 Republican in the House on Friday, shaking up a touchy contest about the party's direction in what could be a difficult election year.
Shadegg joins Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt and Ohio Rep. John Boehner in the race to replace former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who announced a week ago that he would not try to regain the post under pressure from Republicans concerned about his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Shadegg came to Congress as part of the firebrand freshman class of 1994, which brought Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years. He said he doesn't have confidence that the other contenders for the position would help the House bring about enough change.
He cast himself as a Republican in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
"I believe in the power of Republican ideas, and I believe that we need a clean break from the scandals of the recent past," Shadegg said.
Blunt has been acting majority leader since DeLay was indicted last fall on charges of laundering campaign funds. He claims the lead in the race with more than 80 publicly committed supporters. Boehner has 40 such supporters and Shadegg has just a handful, though many of the undecideds are conservative lawmakers who are part of his natural constituency.
The Club for Growth, which raises money for conservative candidates and often weighs in on GOP primary races, endorsed Shadegg on Friday.
"There is no member of the House of Representatives more committed to the idea of limited government and economic freedom than John Shadegg," said Club for Growth president Pat Toomey.
Blunt is also GOP whip, which gives him an advantage in reaching out to members. He is the candidate naturally linked to the current leadership team, which rarely loses a vote and has learned to accommodate different wings of the party in assembling coalitions.
But the simple fact that Blunt hasn't wrapped up the race may be a sign of widespread discontent among the rank and file about the state of the party's leadership in the House.
Winning the post requires 116 votes in the 231-member GOP caucus.
In a jab at Blunt, who refuses to give up the No. 3 whip job as he runs for majority leader, Shadegg said he will give up his junior leadership post as Republican policy chairman because "it is not appropriate to try to retain one position in our elected leadership while running for another."
A crowded race for the GOP whip post is shaping up nonetheless, with Blunt's top deputy, Eric Cantor, R-Va., claiming an insurmountable lead. But Reps. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Mike Rogers of Michigan are contesting the race, saying Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., needs new faces at the leadership table.
"The Republican conference has a lot of work to do to regain the confidence of the American people," Tiahrt said.
For his part, Shadegg is trying to position himself to run as a fresh face to Blunt and Boehner, each of whom has extensive ties to Washington's lobbyist and fundraising communities. But Shadegg is no stranger to Washington lobbyists himself. In December, he shed more than $6,900 in campaign contributions from sources connected to Abramoff.
Abramoff recently admitted providing lavish trips, golf outings, meals and more to public officials "in exchange for a series of official acts."
The party's reputation also took a hit in November when Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned his seat after admitting taking bribes to steer business to defense contractors.
Boehner and Blunt said Friday that they welcomed Shadegg to the race.
"The campaign for House majority leader officially begins again today," Boehner said. "His entry into the majority leader race is further proof the conference isn't happy with the status quo. Between the two of us, we're going to make this race about reforming how the House does business and providing a real alternative to the status quo."
The majority leader sets the House floor schedule and drives much of the day-to-day agenda. Whoever wins the race could be well positioned to be the next speaker.