DeMint’s leadership PAC battles leaders in fight for future of Senate GOP caucus

Members of the Tea Party Caucus and the GOP leadership are in a money race that could shape the ideology of the Senate Republican Conference.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) remains the king of GOP fundraising, but members of the Tea Party Caucus are getting more active about electing conservatives in their mold to the upper chamber.

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Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who often battles his leadership over the direction of the conference, has been more aggressive this year in the use of his fundraising committee.

And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a freshman Tea Party conservative, on Tuesday announced his new political action committee, which appears modeled on DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund.

Lee, who defeated three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in the 2010 Utah Republican primary, said he would not rule out supporting conservative candidates who challenge centrist or liberal GOP Senate colleagues.


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DeMint promised after last year’s election that he would not endorse any opponents to his fellow Republican senators. But he became angry about the debt deal the leadership struck with President Obama and could support serious challengers to Republican senators who voted for the plan, a source close to the senator told The Hill on Tuesday.

“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.”

Twenty-eight GOP senators voted for the deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, while 19 voted against it.

And with Republicans expected to make gains in the upper chamber next year — the GOP is defending 10 seats to the Democrats’ 23 — DeMint and Lee are working to bring in candidates who share their ideology.

DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund raised $1.99 million in the first six months of 2011, according to a fundraising report filed a few days ago with the Federal Election Commission. That’s about $600,000 more than the leadership PACs of the five most senior Senate Republican leaders put together.

In the 2010 cycle, DeMint aggressively used his PAC to support such conservative candidates as now-Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Much of DeMint’s haul this year has been spent on overhead and administrative costs. So far in 2011, DeMint’s fund has raised $138,226 for two Senate candidates, Josh Mandel in Ohio and Ted Cruz in Texas, according to a source familiar with its activity. Most of the money went to Mandel, who reported $2.1 million cash on hand for the second quarter — a high number for a challenger.

The Senate Conservatives Fund also gave $20,000 directly to the two candidates and spent $52,000 on independent expenditures to help them. 

By contrast, Senate GOP leaders prefer to raise money through the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

McConnell, for example, has raised $1.7 million for the NRSC so far this year, according to a GOP aide familiar with his fundraising activity. The minority leader was involved in raising more than $10 million for Senate GOP candidates and the committee in the 2010 cycle, according to the source.

McConnell’s leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, raised $231,000 over the first six months of the year. It gave $115,000 to Senate Republican candidates and colleagues, $15,000 to the NRSC and $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

One GOP aide said there are 33 Senate races in 2012, and lawmakers can give a maximum of $10,000 to a single candidate. So most members of the Senate GOP leadership don’t see a need to raise more than the highest-allowed total of Senate campaign contributions — about $330,000 — through their leadership PACs.

The contributions that such leaders as Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) give to colleagues could affect who becomes the assistant Republican leader once Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) retires at the end of next year.

Alexander, Cornyn and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) could find themselves in a race for the No. 2 spot in the leadership, and will be looking for support among the conference.

Alexander’s Tenn PAC raised $376,000 through the first six months of this year and had $157,000 on hand at the end of June. It gave five $5,000 contributions to colleagues including Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Tenn PAC gave $5,000 to former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is running for his old seat, and $1,000 to Rubio in November for debt retirement.

“Alexander’s leadership PAC has given to every incumbent and the NRSC this cycle,” said an aide to the Tennessee senator. “Right now our focus has to be on getting this economy healthy again so that out-of-work Americans can find good jobs, and supporting the sort of candidates who will help us enact the policies necessary to do that is important to all Republicans.”

Cornyn’s Alamo PAC raised $293,000 over the first half of the year and reported $118,000 cash on hand at the end of June. It gave $80,000 to Senate GOP colleagues, including Bob Corker (Tenn.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Barrasso, Lugar, Heller, Snowe and Wicker.

Thune’s Heartland Values PAC raised $252,000 in the first six months of the year and had $236,000 cash on hand at the end of June. It gave $5,000 contributions to Corker, Snowe, Brown, Heller, Barrasso, Allen and Reps. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) and Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who are running for Senate.


—Cameron Joseph contributed.