WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint's name wasn't on the ballot this week, but the conservative Republican from South Carolina emerged Wednesday as a big winner in key primary elections a day earlier.
Numerous political observers and experts said the election results in Kentucky and Pennsylvania had raised DeMint's stature as a conservative kingmaker who rattles the GOP establishment in Washington and enjoys a rising national profile among conservative activists.
On Tuesday evening, DeMint gloated over Rand Paul's Senate primary victory in Kentucky.
"The Washington establishment threw everything they had at him, and yet he prevailed," DeMint said. "Rand's victory is part of an American awakening that is taking place across the country as people embrace the principles of freedom that are the backbone of our country."
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DeMint had gone up against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his home state of Kentucky, endorsing Paul, a political novice and Tea Party favorite who Tuesday soundly defeated McConnell's choice, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Wednesday on Capitol Hill, DeMint was encircled by reporters when he emerged from a luncheon meeting of the Senate Steering Committee, a conservative caucus he heads.
"People are responding to our message of less spending and less government debt," DeMint said.
DeMint rejected claims by Democratic operatives and some outside analysts that the GOP Senate candidates he's backed in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and elsewhere will fare poorly in November because they're too conservative.
In Pennsylvania, incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who DeMint had helped drive from the Republican Party and then repeatedly ridiculed, lost his Democratic primary contest to Rep. Joe Sestak.
Sestak will run in the November general election against the former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey, whom DeMint has endorsed.
"Rand Paul and Pat Toomey will fight for constitutional limited government, and they are on the path to victory in November," DeMint told McClatchy. "These new Republicans can help restore trust in the GOP with principled leadership."
As he addressed conservative groups in recent months, DeMint had turned Specter into a punch line, sparking boisterous applause in declaring he'd "rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters."
Rubio, a Cuban-American former Florida House speaker, skyrocketed in the polls last year after DeMint's early endorsement. Fueled in part by $343,464 in aid from DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, Rubio's rise led Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party and run for the Senate as an independent.
Democrats said the primary results would help their candidates in November.
Casting the Kentucky contest as a "proxy fight" between McConnell and DeMint, Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said Paul's win "deepens the schism between the far right and the extreme right of the Republican Party."
George Parker, a political reporter for the New Yorker magazine, wrote:
"The prototype for Republican senators these days is no longer McConnell. . . . It's Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who holds office not to legislate but to blow things up."
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