Coburn-DeMint split on nominee shows GOP rift

Two Senate conservatives allied in their lonely quest against congressional pork are fighting for different presidential candidates ahead of South Carolina’s critical GOP primary, illustrating how even the most ideologically similar Republicans are fractured over who should be at the top of their November ticket.

Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Worries grow about political violence as midterms approach President Trump’s war on federal waste American patients face too many hurdles in regard to health-care access MORE (R-Okla.), an ardent foe of earmarked funding, jumped into the fluid presidential picture Wednesday by throwing his support behind the candidacy of Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe peculiar priorities of Adam Schiff Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Lindsey Graham: 'Graham wants to bring back 1950s McCarthyism' Meghan McCain knocks Lindsey Graham for defending Trump's tweets: 'This is not the person I used to know' MORE, another long-time opponent of lawmakers’ pet projects.

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Coburn stumped with McCain in the back yard of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R), who was campaigning throughout Wednesday for the Arizona senator’s arch-nemesis, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. DeMint, who works closely with Coburn in their unpopular war against earmarks, said in an interview that he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the Oklahoma senator’s decision to support McCain.

“There may be some issues [Coburn] may look at a little differently than I do,” DeMint said, referring to illegal immigration and tax cuts.

The endorsements may have no impact on the outcome of Saturday’s South Carolina primary. But the divide between DeMint and Coburn underscores how conservative Washington Republicans are just as torn over their choice for president as GOP primary voters, who are struggling to rally around a single candidate.

Most of the leading GOP candidates have attracted support from those who fall into the social or fiscal conservative camps in Congress.

For instance, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a hero of the religious right, is backing McCain; Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterLobbying World Senate confirms Trump judge who faced scrutiny over abortion views Collins votes against Trump judicial pick MORE (La.), one of the leading opponents of the contentious immigration bill, has endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; the anti-earmark Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers MORE supports his home-state senator McCain; and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase Warren spars with Trump's top Defense nominee over ethics MORE of Oklahoma, who famously called manmade global warming a “hoax,” is backing former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Winning lawmakers’ support sometimes is more an indication of a personal relationship with a candidate than a wholesale endorsement of that candidate’s record. Lawmakers who can raise large amounts of cash and influence key states are heavily courted early in the campaign cycle.

“These guys have to pick their poison,” David Woodard, political scientist at Clemson University, said of lawmakers considering which candidate to back.

But DeMint and Coburn both said that their support was based solely on qualifications for who is best fit to lead the country.

Jerry Morris, Oklahoma director for Coburn, said his boss “believes Sen. McCain is the best candidate for president given the current situation our country faces.”

Coburn made his decision because he believes McCain is ready to lead the country against terrorism, confront Congress on “out-of-control” spending and provide access to healthcare, according to Morris.

DeMint, however, said McCain’s experience in the Senate does not equate with the executive experience Romney acquired as a governor, as CEO of the committee in charge of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympic winter games, and founder of a hedge fund and investment company.

While McCain is on the right side of the earmarks issue, the next president should hail from outside Washington and have a proven record of making bureaucracies more efficient, DeMint argued.

“We don’t need people rhetorically in the right place, but people who really will get things done,” DeMint said.

DeMint was an outspoken critic of the McCain-sponsored immigration overhaul bill that languished in Congress, decrying the measure as “amnesty” for the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants. McCain and supporters of the bill dispute that characterization, pointing to the measure’s border security mandates and what they say are tough requirements that illegal immigrants must meet to win legal status.

DeMint cited the immigration bill and McCain’s votes against President Bush’s tax cuts in the early years of his administration as factors Coburn may not have weighed as heavily as he did in making his endorsement of Romney.

Like DeMint, Coburn has frequently sparred with members of his own party in attacking GOP and Democratic earmarks, and he was a staunch opponent of the failed immigration overhaul effort.

But with the economy weighing heavily on voters’ minds, whichever candidate wins the fight over how to make Washington more fiscally responsible might be in a strong position come Saturday.

“People are concerned about immigration,” said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, “but when it comes down to it, I think economic issues are going to be more important.”

A statewide poll conducted in December by the university found that about 25 percent believed that the economy was the most important issue facing the country. The poll said 14 percent believed health care was the most critical issue, followed by 10 percent who highlighted immigration and 10 percent who believed it was the Iraq war.

Another poll released Wednesday by Clemson University said that 17 percent of voters were still undecided on which candidate to support, and indicated that McCain held a seven-point lead in the state over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with Romney trailing the frontrunner by 16 points.

In a bid to woo the fiscal conservatives who may make up some of the undecided voters, McCain’s camp wasted no time trumpeting Coburn’s endorsement on Wednesday.

“He’s one of the most fiscally conservative Republicans in our entire party,” Robert Jacobs, South Carolina director for McCain’s campaign, said of Coburn in a morning interview with C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. “He’s going to travel all over the state and we’re going to carry our message … that John McCain is ready to be commander in chief from day one.”