By Alexander Bolton - 09/16/10 12:24 AM EDT
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) helped create the anti-Washington wave that has damaged his party’s chances of retaking the Senate this fall, and his GOP colleagues aren’t happy about it.
While no one will confront DeMint directly about his role, Republican aides warn that the first-term senator could be punished if his involvement in GOP primaries is seen as a factor in Democrats retaining control of the upper chamber.
Anger toward DeMint boiled over after the GOP establishment learned that Christine O’Donnell, a controversial conservative backed by DeMint, upset the party’s favored candidate, Rep. Mike Castle, in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary.
DeMint’s critics acknowledge that he has become a force to be reckoned with in Republican politics.
“The feeling is definitely that DeMint is not helping,” said a Senate Republican aide. “Were people angry last night and this morning? Yes. Does DeMint have a lot to answer for? Absolutely. But the general consensus is ‘Let’s move forward.’ ”
DeMint acknowledges his role in the anti-incumbent wave.
“I’ve been involved in helping to create it,” DeMint said of the movement that has roiled primary elections, costing Sen. Arlen Specter — a Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania — and Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) their careers.
“I believed the only thing that could turn around this government spending and mounting debt would be if the people rose up,” DeMint told The Hill in a telephone interview.
DeMint laid out his vision in a book, Saving Freedom, published last summer. He also traveled around the country to urge voters to rally around core constitutional principles and kick incumbents out of Washington.
In the process, he has become a spokesman for the conservative activists who constitute the loudest critics of Washington’s political establishment.
“I’ve tried to be the voice of that group in Washington,” DeMint said. “It’s not very popular here but appreciated around the country.”
DeMint recognizes that some colleagues are angry with him, but he says the party has become too focused on winning power, sometimes to the detriment of conservative principles.
Some of DeMint’s colleagues believe his credibility among protest voters would make him a formidable presidential candidate in 2012 or 2016.
“I believe he could defeat Barack Obama and do a good job,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “Jim should never be underestimated. He’s very capable.”
DeMint says he has “no plans” past 2010. He has said he will not run for reelection in 2016 but has not ruled out a presidential run.
Media interest in DeMint exploded on Wednesday after O’Donnell scored her upset victory in Delaware even though party leaders actively opposed her candidacy.
DeMint’s schedule became filled with back-to-back television interviews and a crowd of reporters staked out the weekly Republican Steering Committee lunch, which he chairs.
The senator warned party leaders last year that he would battle against their candidates in the 2010 primaries.
“I decided that I did not want to be here with the same people that I’ve been with before, Democrats, Republicans, everybody,” DeMint told The Hill during a December interview. “I want some people [in the Senate] who are willing to stand up and go where America is going.”
Most notably, DeMint went head to head against Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in Kentucky’s GOP primary, an unusual breach of Senate protocol because the race was on McConnell’s stomping grounds.
In early May, DeMint announced his support for candidate Rand Paul a day after McConnell endorsed Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul won the race later that month.
DeMint endorsed conservative candidate Ken Buck early in the Colorado Republican primary, even though the national party favored former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
He also backed Florida candidate Marco Rubio after Republican leaders in Washington backed then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist later dropped out of the GOP primary to run as an independent Senate candidate.
DeMint endorsed Utah candidate Mike Lee and Alaska candidate Joe Miller immediately after they defeated Bennett and Murkowski, respectively. He was also quick to endorse Tea Party-backed candidate Sharron Angle after she defeated former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden — the establishment favorite — in Nevada’s primary.
His picks have also at times fallen short. Ovide Lamontagne, whom DeMint endorsed last week, lost in the New Hampshire GOP Senate primary to party-backed candidate Kelly Ayotte.
DeMint defied his party by backing Marlin Stutzman in Indiana, who lost the Senate nomination to former Republican Sen. Dan Coats.
A senior Senate Republican aide downplayed DeMint’s impact on the primaries. The aide said DeMint did not likely have much impact on the Delaware race because he did not endorse until Friday of last week.
The aide, however, gave DeMint credit for getting behind Buck and Rubio early.
The aide said lawmakers often endorse different candidates in GOP primaries. He said the intra-party disagreements have received more attention because DeMint has touted his role.
Some GOP aides paint DeMint as a glory-hound, eager to generate media coverage for himself and take credit for the success of others.
“It looks very self-serving,” said one aide.
But DeMint’s allies argue he is waging a humble fight for a larger cause. Promoting the principles of limited government in the public sphere is part of the job, they say.
Democrats relish the Republican dissension surrounding DeMint’s actions. They say the group of conservatives he will help bring to the Senate will make McConnell’s job as Republican leader more difficult.
“It’s easy to block everything when you only have 41 seats, but when you have to govern, having radical conservatives in the ranks becomes a problem,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “Are they going to say no to everything? Are they going to have to put a wing-nut in the leadership to make them happy?”
DeMint said the Republican Conference will have to change some of its policy positions to reflect the new class of conservatives expected to join the chamber.
For starters, he said, the conference will have to take a strong stand against earmarks. He will also push for the conference to rally behind a balanced-budget amendment.
DeMint, who has angered Democrats and Republicans alike this Congress by repeatedly objecting to routine requests to speed Senate floor procedures, says he’s looking forward to having new partners in arms.
“I want to play a leadership role with that group,” he said. “I’m well-positioned to do so because of my work on the inside as chairman of the Steering Committee and on the outside through the Senate Conservatives Fund.
“People around the country feel they’re not being listened to,” he said.