Jim DeMint, a South Carolinian who is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, doesn't shrink from bucking his party's leadership. In 2001, for instance, he was one of the chief GOP foes of President George W. Bush's key education initiative, "No Child Left Behind." He fought Bush's 2008 emergency bank bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). And lately, he has gone his own way to spend more than $1.5 million in support of Republican Party insurgents like Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.
Now heading into an easy election for a second Senate term, DeMint is emerging as a de facto chief of a Senate Tea Party caucus and likely power player in the 2012 GOP presidential nomination process. He "wants to be the leader of what he hopes to be the dominant faction in his party," says Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. But there are a lot of sharp elbows in politics and DeMint's actions, which are provoking a backlash from the Republican leadership, highlight the divisions within the party heading into the midterm elections and beyond.
DeMint has been flexing his legislative muscles in the Senate. He objected to the fast-tracking of legislation by threatening to block any bills that hadn't been made publicly available at least two days before the Senate's adjournment last Thursday. The move, which Senate staffers claimed was unprecedented, slowed down what is normally a routine process to pass noncontroversial measures. In an E-mail sent to all Senate offices, DeMint said the request had come from the Senate Republican Steering Committee, a conservative Senate group that he chairs. His office said he was simply trying to ensure that no costly measures had sneaked in.
As lawmakers headed home to campaign, DeMint has emerged as a key player in some of the most closely watched races. Using a so-called leadership political action committee, a special type of fundraising committee, DeMint has backed campaigns of self-described Tea Partyers who challenged and defeated the Republican Party's establishment frontrunners.
DeMint is breaking new ground in how he is using one of his two leadership PACs, the Senate Conservatives Fund. His other leadership PAC, MINT PAC, has been far less active than the Senate Conservatives Fund, with less than one-quarter of the Conservative Fund's receipts and expenditures, according to the latest FEC filings. Because PACs are limited by law to a maximum contribution of $10,000 directly to candidates ($5,000 each for the primary and general elections) per election cycle, leadership PACs traditionally spread their money widely and evenly.
DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund has contributed $55,000 directly to various candidates this cycle under those rules, but that is spare change compared with what it has spent in "independent expenditures," which are not subject to legal limits. Independent expenditures go toward political communications like advertisements, mailings, and survey research in support of or against specific candidates, without coordinating with those candidates or their opponents.
DeMint's PAC has spent around $1.5 million this cycle advocating for the election of 15 candidates, according to the PAC's spokesman, Matt Hoskins. In at least seven of the cases, the PAC spent more than $100,000 on behalf of the candidates.
These include nearly $230,000 for Nevada GOP Senate nominee Angle, more than $223,000 for Colorado GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck, and $164,000 for Florida GOP nominee Marco Rubio. More than $130,000 went for Utah GOP nominee Mike Lee, who is in line to succeed Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his renomination bid at the state party convention in May (though DeMint's PAC did not spend money on Lee's behalf until after Bennett had been eliminated). Almost $122,000 was spent on Indiana state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, who made a failed bid for the Hoosier Republican Senate nomination.
This money has mostly gone toward E-mail campaigns, as well as Internet and radio advertising. Most of DeMint's chosen Senate candidates fit three major criteria: They are more conservative than other Republican candidates; they have received Tea Party support on the local or national level; and, with one exception, they are not incumbents. "To see a leadership PAC making independent expenditures is highly unusual," says Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Maine. "Generally it's the case that the party handles the independent expenditures."