Intra-party leadership races on Capitol Hill are generally the quintessential examples of inside-baseball, of limited interest to regular folks, but the Blunt/Johnson contest in the Senate was actually pretty interesting.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) defeated Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) today to become the new Republican Conference vice chairman.

The secret-ballot election for the No. 5 leadership post culminated a behind-the-scenes campaign that began soon after Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) announced in September that he would relinquish his No. 3 position in January.

This looked a bit like a game of musical chairs. Mitch McConnell is still the party’s Senate leader, with Jon Kyl as Minority Whip. But when Alexander gave up his post, it gave John Thune a chance to move up a notch to conference chairman (the #3 slot), while John Barrasso took over as Policy Committee chairman (the #4 slot). That left a vacancy in the five-person Senate Republican leadership team.

Johnson and Blunt, both of whom have been in the Senate for less than a year, both wanted the gig, and it set up a proxy fight over wings of the party. Johnson enjoyed the backing of Republicans like Marco Rubio and Jim DeMint, while Blunt was heralded by members like Johnny Isakson.

It was, in other words, Tea Party Republicans vs. Establishment Republicans. After a secret-ballot vote in which senators didn’t have to worry about potential blowback or repercussions, they backed the Establishment candidate.

The results probably had something to do with the quality of the candidates. Johnson is a not-terribly-bright political novice, while Blunt is a former member of the House, where he worked his way up to House Majority Whip, and for a short while, House Majority Leader. Blunt has some idea as to how to win an intra-party leadership race, and that likely improved his chances.

But also note that Senate GOP caucus rejected the wishes of the base on this one.

Conservative activists favored Johnson, who earned a 91 percent scorecard rating from Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, over Blunt, who scored 64 percent.

FreedomWorks and ForAmerica, two conservative activist organizations, endorsed Johnson, as did Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, and Erick Erickson, editor of

Erickson wrote last week that the relatively obscure leadership race would augur the future ideological direction of the Senate GOP leadership.

If that’s true, the direction is moving away from the Tea Party gang.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.