WASHINGTON -- South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is using his rising national profile among conservative activists to support and bankroll Republican Senate candidates around the country, some of them underdogs challenging GOP establishment favorites.
DeMint's endorsements of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio over Gov. Charlie Crist and California state Rep. Chuck DeVore over former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina put him at odds with other prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and fellow South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
In Pennsylvania, DeMint's endorsement of former Rep. Pat Toomey helped prompt incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter to bolt the Republican Party and run for re-election as a Democrat.
DeMint, who has met with or plans to interview 20 GOP candidates in eight states, has started doling out money from his Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that's raised $1.45 million — most of it from supporters in other states.
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"We've got a chance in this next election to prove a lot of establishment Republicans wrong and show that anywhere in the country principled conservatives can win," DeMint told thousands of activists in a Nov. 3 conference call.
DeMint, a first-term senator seeking re-election next year, has attracted conservative followers nationwide for blocking appropriations earmarks, helping to defeat immigration reforms and leading GOP opposition to expanded federal medical benefits.
DeMint's willingness to go outside his party's official endorsement structure — led by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — is rare for a sitting senator, and virtually unheard of for a freshman.
Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who narrowly lost to Michael Steele in January to head the national party, said DeMint's name increasingly resonates in other states.
"He now is in a prominent leadership role in the Republican Party to where his endorsement matters and means something," Dawson said.
Among 413 donors who've contributed at least $200 to DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, only eight are from South Carolina.
DeMint, 58, makes no bones that he's more focused on advancing conservative goals nationwide than on pursuing the parochial interests of his state.
"All of you all over the country — please remember that Senate seats are not about a particular state," DeMint told more than 4,000 listeners on the recent conference call.
"They're about our country," DeMint said. "Every vote I take is not about South Carolina. It's about the United States of America."
DeMint, a resident of heavily Republican upstate South Carolina, hosted a conference call with Eric Erickson, a founder of the popular conservative blog redstate.com.
After the NRSC endorsed Crist in his run for Congress, Erickson called for his readers not to make any contributions to candidates backed by the official Republican campaign committee.
While Crist has high approval ratings in Florida, many conservative activists there and elsewhere in the country revile him because he backed President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan and gave Obama a warm welcome during a Sunshine State visit.
That view is disputed by Cornyn, McConnell, Graham and other prominent Republicans supporting Crist's Senate bid.
"Charlie Crist is pro-life, pro-gun and pro-family," said Brian Walsh, a Cornyn spokesman. "That's not a definition of anything less than a conservative."
Democrats have seized on DeMint's affiliation with Erickson to attack the senator. Democratic aides e-mailed links to controversial statements the blogger has made on redstate.com and in other conservative forums.
DeMint was the only senator who addressed tens of thousands of Tea Party protesters Sept. 12 at an anti-Obama rally outside the U.S. Capitol. Some carried signs comparing Obama to Nazi founder Adolf Hitler and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Democrats' linking of DeMint with Erickson is similar to Republicans' bid last year to tie Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president's former minister in Chicago who'd bitterly criticized the United States in fiery sermons.
Obama, though, distanced himself from Wright, while DeMint continues to use Erickson's army of followers to reach conservative activists.
"There's always a danger in hooking up with people who may get you a lot of attention in the short term, but who in the long term may be a liability," McManus said Friday.
DeMint the Kingmaker
Sen. Jim DeMint is raising money through three political action committees. One is Jim DeMint for Senate, which covers expenses for his 2010 re-election campaign. The other two funds — called leadership PACs — can be used to support other candidates or committees.
Jim DeMint for Senate PAC:...............Raised $5.24 million since 2005
Senate Conservatives Fund:...............Raised $1.45 million since 2007
MINT PAC:......................................Raised $534,984 since 2005
DeMint is using the Senate Conservatives Fund to support Senate candidates throughout the country, including several underdogs who are running against Republican establishment candidates endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee or prominent GOP senators such as John McCain or Lindsey Graham.
So far, DeMint has spoken or met with — or intends to interview — 20 Senate candidates in eight states, making endorsements (marked with (a) below) in California, Florida and Pennsylvania. He intends to look at other races as well.
Incumbent: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln
State Senate Minority Leader Gilbert Baker
Curtis Coleman, businessman
Nevada state Sen. Kim Hendren
Tom Cox, businessman
Incumbent: Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer
State Rep. Chuck DeVore (a)
Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO
Incumbent: Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett
Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton
Ken Buck, Weld County district attorney
Incumbent: Republican Sen. George LeMieux (temporary appointee)
Gov. Charlie Crist
Marco Rubio, former Florida House speaker (a)
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Jim Bunning (retiring)
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson
Rand Paul, eye surgeon, son of Rep. Ron Paul
Incumbent: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Danny Tarkanian, businessman
Former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden
Incumbent: Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter
Former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey (a)
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (running for governor)
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Michael Williams, Texas Railroad Commissioner
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