By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 8:01 PM
A day after Christine O'Donnell's surprising victory in Delaware's Republican primary for Senate last week, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) complained in a closed-door meeting among GOP senators that the party was pushing away moderates. Other Senate Republicans offered careful, measured endorsements of their new candidate, while top GOP operatives privately questioned whether the party should invest money in Delaware with the controversial O'Donnell as its nominee.
But one senator bounded out of the same meeting with a smile on his face and comments full of praise for the conservative woman who vanquished the more moderate Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.).
"What happened in Delaware is a good thing and an important thing," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "I'm excited about it. What's going to happen now is, win or lose, we are fighting for the right cause."
Many Republicans have watched with a combination of excitement, awe and trepidation as the "tea party" has shaken up the GOP. But DeMint, once a little-known backbencher in the Senate, has boldly embraced the movement and its candidates, even at the expense of candidates such as Castle, who might fare better with swing voters and Democrats at the polls.
DeMint's backing and the subsequent victories of several insurgent candidates such as O'Donnell have turned him into a powerful figure in the GOP, one whom former Alaska governor Sarah Palin praised on her trip to Iowa last weekend.
But the ardently conservative lawmaker has many critics, not all of them Democrats. Influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called DeMint's embrace of O'Donnell "reckless and irresponsible" as more details emerged of her messy finances and questionable remarks.
And DeMint's Republican Senate colleagues, while upholding the chamber's tradition of no personal attacks on fellow party members, aren't embracing his brand of conservatism.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said, "There has to be room for moderates if we want to be a majority party." Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is waging a write-in campaign after losing her GOP primary last month, said, "I think that he has made people uncomfortable."
"I mean, anybody can step up and say, 'I want to see more people that are more of my ilk, my mind-set.' That's fine. They can help them with that," Murkowski said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I don't think that it's particularly helpful to undercut fellow Republicans, but as I say, it's his prerogative."
DeMint disagrees that the party needs moderates to win.
"Anyone who says we would be in the majority if we fielded a bunch of moderate candidates just doesn't understand what's happening in America," he said.
The November elections will be the real test for the 59-year-old senator from South Carolina, who worked in advertising before entering politics. He was elected to the Senate in 2004, after serving in the House for six years.
In his first four years in the Senate, he was known for annoying senators of both parties with his crusade to stop earmarks, the local projects that lawmakers tuck into bills. He had long argued that the Republican Party is too liberal on fiscal issues, and last year he started to take action.
When Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), then a Republican, supported the economic stimulus package, a Pennsylvania conservative activist, Pat Toomey, decided to challenge Specter in a Republican primary. DeMint privately told Specter that he would back Toomey.
A few days later, as polls showed that Republicans in the state were likely to nominate Toomey, Specter defected to the Democratic Party. Many Republicans, including DeMint's home-state colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham, bemoaned the move and said the GOP needed more moderates like Specter.
DeMint, on the other hand, declared good riddance to Specter, saying, "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."
A few months later, DeMint announced his hope that Republicans would defeat the health-care overhaul and turn the issue into President Obama's "Waterloo."
Republicans in Washington distanced themselves from DeMint's rhetoric. But he was launching his own insurgency against both Obama and his own party. Late last year, DeMint, who runs a political action committee called the Senate Conservatives Fund, started meeting with underdog conservative candidates. He not only endorsed the ones he liked but also encouraged the people on his PAC's e-mail list to donate to them.
Nearly all of the candidates endorsed by DeMint were anti-establishment Republicans not backed by the official party. They supported DeMint's views, such as repealing the new health-care law and opposing earmarks.
DeMint has raised more than $3 million overall for the candidates, money that aided their campaigns but did not give them a financial advantage over their opponents.
The endorsements were a signal; they were often followed by backing from other conservatives.
By February, DeMint's PAC had raised more than $100,00 for Marco Rubio, who two months later effectively won the GOP Florida Senate primary when Gov. Charlie Crist switched to become an independent in the face of Rubio's growing Republican support.
Rubio praised DeMint as a man "who believed in me when, really, most of the people that believed in me lived in my house."
But some of DeMint's candidates have struggled. His choice in the California Senate primary, Chuck DeVore, finished far behind two other contenders.
While DeMint's interventions have won him praise among many conservative activists, he has played down any talk of becoming a leader among Senate Republicans or a 2012 presidential contender. He remains much less well known than potential 2012 candidates such as Palin and would struggle in a leadership race on Capitol Hill, where many GOP senators are wary of him.
Some Republicans now say that because O'Donnell won with DeMint's help, he needs to make a stronger effort to get her elected in November. DeMint says he is raising money for O'Donnell, but even if O'Donnell is not elected, he added, he has already succeeded on the campaign trail.
"They told me we couldn't win in Pennsylvania with a conservative - Pat Toomey is ahead. They said we couldn't win in Florida with a conservative - Marco Rubio is ahead. They said Rand Paul couldn't be competitive in Kentucky - he's ahead," DeMint said, reeling off the names of conservative Senate candidates he has endorsed. "Everything they said has been wrong. I'm counting on them to be wrong in Delaware."