- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint has bet on the right horse in an impressive string of Senate primary contests this year — including Mike Lee’s win this week in Utah — but the freshman Republican’s biggest challenge will likely be how he and his band of conservative outsiders fit into the GOP establishment.

Mr. Lee’s win Tuesday over businessman Tim Bridgewater in the Senate primary runoff marks the fourth time a DeMint-favored candidate has defeated a candidate clearly favored by party leaders.

Other Senate candidates who benefited from Mr. DeMint’s early endorsement and campaign cash include Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Mr. DeMint has also been quick to embrace new Nevada Senate nominee Sharron Angle after her upset win in the GOP primary earlier this month.

There’s an outside chance all five will be joining Mr. DeMint when the new Senate convenes in January. 

Such brashness may indeed rankle top party officials, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who backed state Secretary Trey Grayson over Mr. Paul in the Kentucky primary. But the winning streak has led GOP leaders to embrace Mr. DeMint’s allies for the general election campaign to come.

Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, congratulated Mr. Lee on his victory and expressed confidence in his ability to retain the seat now held by Sen. Robert F. Bennett  the moderate Republican ousted at a party convention.

“Mike is a strong conservative leader who reflects his state’s values,” said Mr. Cornyn, Texas Republican. “He understands that we must rein in the Democrats’ out-of-control spending agenda to get our nation’s economy back on track.”

Mr. DeMint’s rising profile even became an issue in the Utah race, with Mr. Bridgewater’s campaign sending out a mailing attacking Mr. DeMint’s role in backing Mr. Lee.

Mr. DeMint on Wednesday hailed Mr. Lee for his “unwavering support for the Constitution and principles of freedom,” adding pointedly, “Mike was the target of some very vicious campaign attacks, but he kept his focus on fighting for Utah families and prevailed.”

Mr. DeMint has been at the center of a number of divisive  and expensive  intraparty battles this year, but GOP strategist Charlie Gerow predicts all will be forgiven if his picks succeed in November.

“Winning salves a lot of wounds,” Mr. Gerow said. “If his candidates win, then great for him. If they lose, it might be trouble.”

Much of Mr. DeMint’s support has been through his leadership PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent a total of $2.6 million already this year in primary fights.

According to information obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. DeMint’s PAC has “invested” through direct donations, bundling and earmarked fundraising more than $390,000 for Mr. Rubio, a former Florida state speaker of the house; almost $104,000 for Mr. Toomey, a former House member; and about $39,000 for Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist and political novice.

The Senate Conservatives Fund has also placed a bet in another brewing insurgent primary fight in Colorado’s Senate race, having given close to $65,000 so far to District Attorney Kenneth R. Buck in his race against establishment-backed former Lt. Gov. Jane E. Norton. Ms. Norton had long led in the polls, but Mr. Buck overtook her in the most recent surveys with the primary set for Aug. 10.

Dick Wadhams, a GOP strategist and now chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, agrees that Mr. DeMint’s status within the party will ultimately not be decided until November.

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