WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint proudly recalls the moment he became a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment.
In the gloomy weeks following the party's throttling in the 2008 elections, the first-term South Carolina senator urged GOP leaders to shake up the seniority rules that he felt were perpetuating a broken culture of parochial spending within the party.
"I was told eye-to-eye ... 'DeMint, you can't change the Senate,'" he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office this week. "I said, 'Well, we'll see.' And that's been my challenge ever since."
Two years later, DeMint has done as much as anybody to incite the tea party uprising and bitter infighting that has roiled GOP primaries this year. He's used a newfound political celebrity and resulting fundraising strength to fuel a string of upstart conservatives who were opposed by the party as too extreme or unelectable. He's burned bridges, infuriated party leaders and helped defeat some of his colleagues in the traditionally tight-knit Senate.
He's also become one of the more influential Republican power brokers in Washington, an unlikely leader with a loyal following of conservative activists and a goal of purging the party of what he calls weak-kneed Republicans.
"Some of my establishment friends are not real happy with me," DeMint told a wildly supportive audience Friday at the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington. "It's got a lot of people here in Washington scared."
The sometimes blunt former advertising executive is not one for small talk or backslapping. Diplomacy is not his strong suit, although his mom once ran a school of dance and decorum out of his boyhood home in Greenville, S.C.
He's been in Washington for a decade — he also served six years in the House — but claims to not even like politics. He largely avoids the cameras and regularly turns down appearances on Sunday talk shows. He says he had at one time decided to give up his seat after this year, forgoing an all-but-certain re-election.
That was until his frustrations boiled over and he decided to challenge the status quo, forming a fundraising committee with the idea of highlighting candidates he considers true conservatives, and calling out those he doesn't. His Senate Conservatives Fund ranks his colleagues on their positions, often with unflattering scores.
DeMint calls the Bush years embarrassing, saying he knew the party would lose power in 2006 when it drove up spending and debt even though it controlled both chambers of Congress and George W. Bush was in the White House.
"We betrayed the trust of the American people, and I don't want to be a part of a majority that does that again," he said.
That's why he's not concerned that the candidates he's helped catapult to primary victories might lose in the general election. He says he'd rather be in the minority than an unprincipled majority.
He's given more than $3 million to upstart campaigns. While he has some losses, he has often been more prescient than his party in picking winners, providing early backing to underdogs such as Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Ken Buck in Colorado.
His latest and most hostile feud with the party machine came in Delaware, where DeMint openly fought with Republican leaders in a contest between moderate Republican Rep. Michael Castle and tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell. While Republican leaders openly attacked O'Donnell's campaign — the state party chairman called her a fraud who couldn't get elected dogcatcher — DeMint gave her money and a key endorsement.
She pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year, just after another stunning result in Alaska in which underdog Joe Miller beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
While Democrats welcome running against so many unconventional candidates, many of DeMint's fellow Republicans view him with skepticism, questioning his motivations or criticizing his strategy. None would speak on the record about a fellow senator but behind the scenes are angry that he has so willingly helped divide the party and jeopardized a prime opportunity for the GOP to retake the majority.