Vote on debt ceiling could push DeMint to back incumbent primary challengers

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) might back primary challengers to incumbent Republican senators after all.

DeMint had promised after last year’s election that he would not endorse any opponents to his fellow GOP lawmakers in the 2012 cycle. But now he is angry enough with the debt-ceiling compromise that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) struck with President Obama that he might back serious challengers to Republican senators who support the plan, according to a source close to the senator.

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“He’s already opened the door to changing that policy in terms of supporting people in primaries — this deal could bring him to the point where he says he’s not going to make any guarantees,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of intraparty relations. “It’s not a threat that he’s going to oppose anybody, but ... if he does, nobody should be surprised.”

DeMint, whose Senate Conservatives Fund helped finance several right-wing Republican candidates last election, angered Republican leaders when he backed a handful of conservative challengers to candidates backed by the establishment.

He supported Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over McConnell’s favored candidate in Kentucky and helped give Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) an early boost in his primary against then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I).

After the 2010 elections, DeMint promised his colleagues he would not endorse any primary candidates, but the debate over raising the debt ceiling has changed his mind. DeMint said in mid-June at the Republican Leadership Conference that “if we have folks who go the wrong way on [the debt-ceiling vote], it’s going to be pretty hard for me to sit still” and stay out of primaries. 

The new deal does not pass muster with him, which should worry some of his fellow senators. The Senate Conservatives Fund spent $8.2 million on its preferred candidates last election cycle, and DeMint has said he hopes to raise and spend $15 million this time around.

He has already endorsed two Republicans in possibly competitive Senate primaries next year: Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

Republican senators who could face competitive primary challenges from the right include Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah). Other incumbents, including Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), have angered conservatives at times, but a credible candidate has not emerged to challenge either of them.