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.
“This has a ways to play out,” he said. “Clearly, he has already had a huge impact. His endorsement in this primary was a factor, but not the definitive factor. What is clear is this is going to be a competitive race all the way to the end.”
In Nevada, Mr. DeMint did not officially endorse Mrs. Angle in her GOP primary race against fellow conservative Danny Tarkanian and establishment candidate Sue Lowden. However, his PAC promptly began raising money after Ms. Angle’s win and says it has “invested” $122,000. Mrs. Angle will face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a four-term incumbent who has $12.4 million in his campaign war chest, according to federal reports.
“Sharron Angle is a conservative warrior,” Mr. DeMint said. “Nobody thought she could defeat her Washington-backed opponent.”
Though many of the DeMint-backed candidates were underdogs, the junior senator’s biggest long-shot victory was Mr. Rubio, whom he endorsed in June 2009 at a time when most conceded the nomination to centrist GOP Gov. Charlie Crist. Mr. Crist was even formally endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
A year later, Mr. Crist is running as an independent after Mr. Rubio’s surge in the polls helped drive him from the Republican Party. Mr. Rubio faces only token opposition ahead of the Aug. 24 GOP primary before taking on Mr. Crist and the Democratic nominee in a three-way general election.
”I put the full weight of the Senate Conservatives Fund behind [Mr. Rubio],” Mr. DeMint said, after Mr. Crist’s decision to exit the race. “The Washington elites laughed and dismissed the notion that anyone could defeat Gov. Charlie Crist. We proved them wrong.”
Mr. DeMint’s record is not perfect. Though he backed conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore in the GOP primary for a Senate seat in California including more than $177,000 in PAC contributions Mr. DeVore finished a distant third to primary winner Carly Fiorina and former Rep. Tom Campbell.
Mr. Gerow thinks Mr. DeMint and his outsider allies could be integral to the party’s hopes in the November elections.
“Mr. DeMint looks to me like a true believer,” said Mr. Gerow. “The picks the GOP has are a good fit for the 2010 cycle. People are fed up with incumbents, and I agree with that assessment.”
Mr. DeMint has had his own allies in the insurgent push. Many of the candidates he backed have also been helped by “tea party” activists, the influential Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other conservative organizations.
In one more sign of Mr. DeMint’s good fortune this year, his own campaign for a second term this November looks to be a walkover. His Democratic opponent, Alvin Greene, is a political unknown whose unexpected victory in the primary caused a mini-political scandal and sparked widespread allegations of ballot-tampering.
Some speculate that Mr. DeMint is positioning himself for a 2012 presidential run, though recent South Carolina polls found only 15 percent of state voters backed the idea.
“But clearly he wants to have a long-term impact on the Republican Party,” Colorado’s Mr. Wadhams said.
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Sam Bovard contributed to this article.