WASHINGTON – Since his election in 1996, Rep. Roy Blunt (search), R-Mo., has made lightning fast moves up the leadership ladder and has maintained popular regard in the GOP-led House that he now corrals with a soft touch and a willingness to raise campaign cash for the cause.
"Roy Blunt has proven himself a political powerhouse," said National Republican Congressional Committee (search) spokesman Chris Paulitz. "(He) has quickly become one of the most effective whips in recent memory."
But while the majority whip has earned top grades for keeping members in lock-step, Democrats, particularly those in his staunchly conservative southwest Missouri 7th District, say Blunt is a fierce partisan whose avid fundraising — which in the House is rivaled only by that of Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert — keeps him away from his business at home.
"My personal nickname for him is ‘Big Money Blunt,’" said Doug Burlison (search), a perennial candidate who is running in the August primary for the Democratic nomination to challenge Blunt. "He rarely spends time campaigning in the district. He’s usually running around the rest of the country raising money to enhance his position in Congress."
At least one Republican, Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan, has also complained that Blunt twisted his arm on his vote on the Medicare Reform Act last year. Blunt and other leadership sources have flatly denied the charge, but the allegation is the subject of a House ethics probe.
A former high school teacher, college professor and president of Southwest Baptist University, Blunt, 54, served as Missouri secretary of state from 1984 to 1992 and was elected eight years ago to the House, where he’s been in the fast lane ever since.
Barely a month after his easy victory in 1998, DeLay, who was then majority whip, handpicked Blunt to be his chief deputy. He has since been credited with brokering several key deals among Republicans. According to colleagues, Blunt has fostered a reputation as a good listener and mediator. In 2000, he served as the House GOP liaison for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
In 2002, Blunt helped raise $5.6 million for House Republican candidates and began solidifying support for his higher leadership aspirations. When DeLay replaced retiring Rep. Dick Armey as majority leader, Blunt ran unopposed for the whip position.
For his part, Blunt told Foxnews.com that being a college president helped him learn how to round up necessary votes and bring about consensus.
"In that job, you deal with a highly capable, highly intelligent group of people who all in their own minds have an idea of what should happen in the best interest of the institution," he said. "Part of the process is listening, and part of it is to create a sense of what we really are doing as opposed to what people say we are doing, and to create a sense of what is possible as opposed to what is ideal.
He said he believes the House GOP is the most unified it has been since the Republican revolution a decade ago.
"In the time I’ve been here I think I’ve seen a real maturing," he said of the majority. "The proof is in the work we get done. We do hard things, we do them every day. We try to challenge both the country and the administration and the Senate to be as good as we can be."
Members of his leadership team say Blunt doesn't leave much room for complaint.
"He’s a great whip," said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, noting that Blunt wins over members by knowing the needs of their districts, and plying them full of information about bills.
"He’s used every method available," she said.
"I know all too well that the majority's performance is judged by the ability to pass its agenda, and so much of that responsibility sits on the whip’s shoulders. Roy, and therefore this majority, have earned a strong report card," DeLay said.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., said Blunt lives up to his reputation as a "velvet hammer" – a direct reference to DeLay’s nickname of the "Hammer" – by doing more persuading than pressuring.
"(His) greatest asset as majority whip is that he understands the obligations of his colleagues," Emerson told Foxnews.com. "He has never asked me to put the party before my constituents on a close vote. I think that speaks to how seriously he views his duties as a member of Congress as well as a member of the House leadership."
But opponents at home say Blunt "does not practice what he preaches," particularly when it comes to small government.
"Congress is being operated in the middle of the night, with the door shut on minority views," said Democratic candidate Jim Newberry, accusing Blunt of catering to special interests.
7th District Libertarian candidate Kevin Craig (search) called Blunt "a player," not a leader.
Blunt dismisses his opponents' criticisms, particularly those that attack the GOP as wild spenders, and takes credit for helping to pass the Bush tax cuts in 2003, which he said have led to better fiscal health for the country.
"Our intent is to hold the budget (increases) at zero," in fiscal year 2005, he said. As for the tax cuts, "if we hadn’t cut that burden, we would still be in the same economic decline we were in 2000. It was the right thing to do then, and the right thing to do in the future."
Despite the brewing contest, Blunt has handily won his last four re-elections and is in good financial shape for the November contest. He has $1.7 million on hand for his own campaign. He has also raised more than $1.5 million for his personal political action committee, Rely on Your Beliefs, nearly $365,000 of which has already gone to other Republican candidates for Congress.
Democrats are hopeful that the growing population in the district, which includes the city of Springfield and entertainment Mecca of Branson, will bring balance to the Republican-heavy voter base.