Jim DeMint, the senator stirring the tea

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) rejects the idea that his party needs the support of moderate voters to gain congressional majorities.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) rejects the idea that his party needs the support of moderate voters to gain congressional majorities. (Mark Wilson)

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By Perry Bacon Jr. Washington Post Staff Writer Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A day after Christine O'Donnell's surprising victory in Delaware's Republican Senate primary last week, Sen. Scott Brown (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. Michael J. Castle.

"What happened in Delaware is a good thing and an important thing," said Sen. Jim DeMint (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 J. Snowe (Maine) said, "There has to be room for moderates if we want to be a majority party." Sen. Lisa Murkowski (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.

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