DeMint Chooses Purity Over Politics and Over GOP Leadership

A rising Senate conservative makes his moves.

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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."

Hoskins says that the Senate Conservatives Fund's spending patterns make more sense than those of other PACs. "The question that should be asked is why are the other ones not" using independent expenditures, says Hoskins. "Why are they not using their PACs the way their PACs were structured to be used?"

Unlike other senators' leadership PACs, DeMint's 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 on their ideological quality.

That emphasis has often put DeMint afoul of party leaders this cycle. For example, he backed Tea Party favorite Rand Paul in Kentucky's Senate race when Mitch McConnell, the state's senior senator, favored Paul's primary opponent. When fellow senators endorsed Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle the state's Senate primary, DeMint backed Castle's opponent, O'Donnell. And when mainline Republicans backed former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in that state's Republican Senate primary, DeMint endorsed conservative attorney Ovide Lamontagne.

DeMint, for his part, denies that his PAC's spending is intended to buy influence from a potentially 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."

DeMint may have hit on a winning strategy; 10 of the 15 candidates promoted by the Senate Conservatives Fund are still standing after primaries, and most are either in competitive races or have a good chance of winning in November. Plus, now that these candidates are official Republican nominees, they are receiving support from the likes of McConnell and the Republican Party. DeMint's fund has also shown that it is an effective fundraiser; it tweeted on September 20 that it had raised $95,000 for Alaska Republican Senate candidate Miller in the 48 hours after Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced she would be a write-in candidate for the seat, having lost the Republican nomination to Miller in August.

Still, even if it proves successful, Hoskins is uncertain whether this highly targeted use of leadership PACs will catch on among other politicians. "If members of Congress want to use their PACs to effectively elect candidates, they will use them for independent expenditures," he says. "Whether they will, I just don't know. The jury's out."

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