Jim DeMint is becoming something of a “tea party” hero, even a potential conservative kingmaker, a status that is not making the freshman senator from South Carolina many friends among fellow Republicans in Congress.
A backbencher known for his eagerness to challenge the Republican establishment, Mr. DeMint is becoming one of the most influential voices of the conservative rebellion that’s shaking up GOP primaries. Tapping an anti-incumbent fervor, the South Carolina lawmaker is a coveted - and feared - endorsement, funneling money and grass-roots energy to long-shot candidates who threaten Washington’s GOP favorites.
His efforts, highly unusual for a freshman, have upset some fellow senators on Capitol Hill, where he’s viewed by many as an ideologue willing to purge centrist veterans.
“I feel a sense of urgency that some of my colleagues don’t,” he said in an interview. “The Republican Party, at least a segment of it within Washington, has increasingly joined the big-government, big-spending, earmarking ranks.”
Mr. DeMint, 58, has demonstrated an ability to read the conservative electorate. Twice in the past two years, he’s opposed leading Republicans only to see them abandon the party. His underdog picks in a handful of other races are waging surprisingly strong challenges to mainstream candidates viewed by party leaders as more electable.
His Senate Conservatives Fund has steered $622,911 to a half-dozen candidates through the end of March, both through direct contributions and by bundling collections from the fund’s 200,000 members. With recent momentum, fundraising is picking up.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the campaign committee to get Senate Republicans elected, said Mr. DeMint may be hurting the party’s ability to regain power in Washington.
“My goal is simply to build our numbers so we can provide checks and balances to single-party power here in Washington,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I think he has a different goal, which is to try to move the Republican conference in a more conservative direction.”
Mr. DeMint’s combative style is perhaps not what his mother had in mind when she ran the DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum out of his childhood home after his parents divorced. It’s been welcomed, however, by several conservative candidates.
In Florida, Mr. DeMint was the first national Republican to back underdog Marco Rubio in the state’s GOP Senate primary against Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was considered a shoo-in at the time. Mr. DeMint’s support and fundraising for Mr. Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and a tea party favorite, helped spark a bitter internal fight that ultimately pushed Mr. Crist to leave the party last month and run as an independent.
“It kept us alive,” Mr. Rubio said of Mr. DeMint’s support, including nearly $350,000 in contributions. “Especially early on, it was one of a couple of things that allowed us to survive when very few people thought we had a chance.”
Last week, Mr. DeMint broke with GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the leader’s backyard to support tea party favorite Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate primary. Mr. McConnell and other party leaders have backed GOP Secretary of State Trey Grayson. The primary is May 18.
In other cases, Mr. DeMint’s silence has been telling. He pointedly refused to aid once-popular Republican Bob Bennett, a three-term senator who was defeated Saturday by conservative voters in Utah’s GOP convention. After Mr. Bennett’s loss, Mr. DeMint immediately endorsed Mike Lee, one of the two Republicans in a runoff.
Mr. DeMint also has declined to endorse Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, who faces a challenge from the right and gets just a 77 out of 100 from Mr. DeMint’s group despite the Arizona lawmaker’s fight against the pet project spending known as earmarks.