Such independent expenditures traditionally come from the major party committees or well-financed outside groups like labor unions. According to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, 162 PACs have made independent expenditures this election cycle, though DeMint's is one of only three leadership PACs to do so. North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry's House Conservatives Fund has spent $6,000, and Arkansas ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee's Huck PAC has spent $1,155. The groups that have spent more on independent expenditures than DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund are the typical powerhouses of political ad buys, including the AFL-CIO, three national party committees, and 11 other unions.
"To see a leadership PAC making independent expenditures is highly unusual," says Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in New Hampshire. "Generally it's the case that the party handles the independent expenditures."
Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund, says that his organization's spending patterns make more sense than those of other PACs. "The question that should be asked is why are the other ones not" spending on independent expenditures? asks Hoskins. "Why are they not using their PACs the way their PACs were structured to be used?"
Indeed, while other politicians have been generous with their leadership PAC money, their contributions have been more traditionally directed. For example, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's leadership PAC, Every Republican is Crucial PAC, has contributed over $1.2 million to 169 Republican House candidates--101 of whom are incumbents, almost all of them safe bets for re-election--and seven GOP Senate candidates. House Minority Leader John Boehner's Freedom Project has donated $800,000 to 99 House candidates and seven Senate candidates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, has donated $330,000 to 32 Senate candidates and eight House candidates. (DeMint has a second leadership PAC, MINT PAC , which has donated $35,000 to seven GOP candidates and reports no independent expenditures.)
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says that the Kentucky senator's PAC backs all GOP Senate candidates simply for the sake of supporting his party as much as possible. "Once the voters of a state elect a nominee, [McConnell] is behind him," says Stewart.
DeMint, by contrast, has made waves within his party by pursuing what Corrado calls "more of an ideological approach to its giving than a partisan approach." The depth of DeMint's financial commitment to outsider, strongly conservative candidates suggests a focus not on the quantity of Republicans who win seats this fall but rather their ideological quality, and that emphasis has often put him afoul of party leaders this cycle. DeMint, for example, backed Tea Party favorite Rand Paul when McConnell, the state's senior senator, favored Paul's primary opponent. When his fellow senators endorsed Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle in his primary, DeMint backed Castle's opponent, Mama Grizzly O'Donnell. And when mainline Republicans backed New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in that state's Republican Senate primary, DeMint endorsed attorney Ovide Lamontagne.
DeMint, for his part, denies that his PAC's spending is aimed at buying influence among a potential new crop of senators. "DeMint has told every one of these candidates, 'You owe me nothing. Your debt is to your country,'" says Hoskins. He adds that the discord that DeMint has caused among establishment Republicans is proof of his selfless motives: "If he was trying to build influence in Washington, this isn't the way to do it."
In an earlier version of this story, Republican lawmaker Mike Castle's current office was misidentified. He is a member of the House of Representatives.