After tense midterms, DeMint and Cornyn agree to bury the hatchet

The chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm and Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint are pledging to work more closely together in the 2012 election cycle.

DeMint and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) say they want to avoid the tensions of 2010, when DeMint backed anti-establishment candidates who ended up defeating Cornyn-backed candidates in several Senate races.

Some of DeMint’s endorsements worked out. He was an early supporter of rising GOP star Marco Rubio, the new Republican senator from Florida, as well as incoming Sen. Rand Paul in Kentucky.

But some Republicans have also accused DeMint and the Tea Party of costing the GOP a Senate majority. He backed Delaware candidate Christine O’Donnell in Delaware over GOP Rep. Mike Castle, who had been considered a shoe-in to win Vice President Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. O’Donnell won the primary but was handily defeated in the general election.

Cornyn, who was reelected to a second term as NRSC chairman, has said he will stay away from trying to anoint winners in Senate Republican primaries, while DeMint has promised to consult more with Cornyn.

“We saw in this last cycle being someone recruited by the NRSC proved to be as much a liability in some races as a help,” Cornyn said in an interview with The Hill. “That’s why I think we’re going to be taking a more hands-off approach when it comes to the primaries.”

Cornyn said he has told DeMint and conservative members of the Senate Republican Steering Committee that he will encourage prospective candidates to meet with them when they visit Washington looking for party support.

“Frankly, I would like to get other people’s inputs,” Cornyn said. “There’s no need for some of the conflicts that we saw this last cycle, in my view.”

Conservative activists and bloggers criticized Cornyn harshly at times in 2010 because he gave early support to candidates such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson and former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

Those candidates ended up losing in GOP primaries to Rubio, Paul and Colorado district attorney Ken Buck, respectively.

Cornyn sparked a conservative backlash in June by planning a Denver fundraiser for Norton.

“John Cornyn and the NRSC keep saying they are staying out of primaries, but keep getting involved,” Erick Erickson, founder of the conservative blog, told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “The NRSC’s integrity is on the level of [Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist, both of whom the NRSC supported with Norton.”

DeMint also attracted a measure of scorn after two candidates he endorsed in primaries, Buck and O’Donnell, lost general-elections races that Republicans were expected to win.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) charged that DeMint had undermined the Republican effort to capture the Senate majority.

DeMint said he will try to foster a spirit of unity in 2012.

He is supporting the Alaska Republican nominee in his post-election legal fight against Murkowski but has pledged in a recent letter to GOP colleagues that he will not recruit primary challengers against them.

“I’m going to work with John,” DeMint said. “We’ve had a number of talks about how we can work together.”

But DeMint and his leadership political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, will not shy away from supporting conservative candidates in Democratic states. He noted that conservatives Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson won in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that voted Democratic in recent presidential elections.

“I think that John Cornyn and I will probably be on the same page most of the time,” DeMint said. “This time we’re going to get started together.

“We’re looking at finding good candidates in a lot of blue states and doing everything we can to get them elected,” he added.

DeMint’s name has been floated as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, and he may have decided that the role of bare-knuckled insurgent seems less than presidential. But DeMint has dismissed speculation of a White House bid.

The South Carolina Republican says next year it will be easier to work with Cornyn because the NRSC will feel less pressure to court centrist candidates in a political environment experts predict will favor Republicans.

“Last time he had to start recruiting in a very negative environment,” DeMint said of Cornyn. “This time it’s a positive environment for conservatives to start off with. I think we should be able to work well together.”

Cornyn said he had to involve himself early to persuade top-quality candidates to run at a time when Senate Republicans were expected to lose seats.

“People didn’t want to run because it didn’t look like we had a shot,” Cornyn said.

Former Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who plans to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), flew to Washington this week to meet with DeMint and Cornyn.

McCaskill noted in an interview that Steelman met with DeMint before Cornyn, suggesting that DeMint is considered more of a force in GOP primaries. Steelman met with DeMint Tuesday evening and with Cornyn on Wednesday morning, according to sources.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), who is mulling a bid against Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), also flew to Washington last week to meet with DeMint. Bruning tried to set up a meeting with Cornyn but could not because of scheduling conflicts, according to a GOP aide.

DeMint encouraged Steelman and Bruning to build their grassroots operations but held off on pledging support so soon in the cycle.