DeMint: A Conservative Kingmaker Upends GOP Order

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WASHINGTON — Jim DeMint is becoming something of a tea party hero, even a potential conservative kingmaker, a status that is not making the freshman senator many friends among fellow Republicans in Congress.

A backbencher known for his eagerness to challenge the Republican establishment, DeMint is becoming one of the most influential voices of the conservative rebellion that's shaking up GOP primaries. Tapping an anti-incumbent fervor, the South Carolina lawmaker is a coveted — and feared — endorsement, funneling money and grass-roots energy to long-shot candidates who threaten Washington's GOP favorites.

His efforts, highly unusual for a freshman, have upset senators on Capitol Hill, where he's viewed by many as an ideologue willing to purge centrist veterans.

"I feel a sense of urgency that some of my colleagues don't," he said in an interview. "The Republican Party, at least a segment of it within Washington, has increasingly joined the big-government, big-spending, earmarking ranks."

DeMint, 58, has demonstrated an ability to read the conservative electorate. Twice in the past two years he's opposed leading Republicans only to see them abandon the party. His underdog picks in a handful of other races are waging surprisingly strong challenges to mainstream candidates viewed by party leaders as more electable.

His Senate Conservatives Fund has steered $622,911 to a half-dozen candidates through the end of March, both through direct contributions and by bundling collections from its 200,000 members. With recent momentum, fundraising is picking up.

DeMint, who says he'd rather stand with a committed minority than a big-tent majority, insists he's not trying to pick fights. But his political radar often seems sharper than his diplomacy. His Conservatives Fund ranks sitting senators, for example, and gives Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a grade of 79 out of 100 — a "C'' — while DeMint gets a perfect score.

Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Senate committee to get Republicans elected, said DeMint may be hurting the party's ability to regain power in Washington.

"My goal is simply to build our numbers so we can provide checks and balances to single-party power here in Washington," Cornyn said. "I think he has a different goal, which is to try to move the Republican conference in a more conservative direction. If that were possible and we were able to win elections all around the country I would be all for it, but I think as a pragmatic matter we've got to nominate Republicans who can get elected in their states."

DeMint's combative style is perhaps not what his mother had in mind when she ran the DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum out of his childhood home after his parents divorced. It's been welcomed, however, by several conservative candidates.

In Florida, DeMint was the first national Republican to back Marco Rubio in the state's GOP Senate primary against Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was considered a shoo-in at the time. DeMint's support and fundraising for Rubio, a tea party favorite, helped spark a bitter internal fight that ultimately pushed Crist to leave the party last month and run as an independent.

"It kept us alive," Rubio said of DeMint's support, including nearly $350,000 in contributions. "Especially early on, it was one of a couple of things that allowed us to survive when very few people thought we had a chance."

Polls in Florida now find a wide-open race, giving Democrats a legitimate shot at winning.

DeMint also was ahead of his party last year in opposing Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, just before the veteran Republican, facing threats from the right, switched to become a Democrat.

Last week, DeMint broke with McConnell in the Republican leader's backyard to support tea party favorite Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate primary. McConnell and other party leaders have backed GOP Secretary of State Trey Grayson. The primary is May 18.

In other cases, DeMint's silence has been telling. He pointedly refused to aid once-popular Republican Bob Bennett, a three-term senator who was defeated Saturday by conservative voters in Utah's GOP convention. After Bennett's loss, DeMint immediately endorsed Mike Lee, one of the two Republicans in a runoff.