WASHINGTON — When voters go to the polls Tuesday for U.S. Senate primary elections in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, they'll write a new act in the ongoing shake-up of the Republican political establishment that's being led by conservative freshman Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
In Kentucky, GOP voters will choose between Trey Grayson — the handpicked choice of the state's most powerful Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — and DeMint-backed Rand Paul, son of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate — and current Texas congressman — Ron Paul.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats will select Rep. Joe Sestak or incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who bolted the Republican Party last year after DeMint became the first Republican senator to endorse Specter's opponent, former Rep. Pat Toomey, in the GOP primary.
DeMint's impact — through endorsements and money from his Senate Conservatives Fund — has also been felt in recent weeks in Florida, Indiana and Utah, and it will reverberate throughout the summer in California, Colorado and beyond.
Around the country, DeMint is backing conservative underdog challengers who are running against more moderate Republican establishment candidates such as Carly Fiorina in California and Jane Norton in Colorado.
"This has not gone over real well with my colleagues," DeMint told conservative activists who were gathered last month at a retreat in Santa Barbara, Calif.
DeMint's intrusion into McConnell's home state with his endorsement of Paul on May 5, a day after McConnell backed Grayson, raised eyebrows in Republican congressional offices on Capitol Hill.
The move sparked published and online reports that DeMint wants McConnell's job as the top Senate Republican, compelling DeMint to reject the reports out of hand.
"Anyone who wants to be a leader in the Senate doesn't rock the boat, which is clearly my style," DeMint told McClatchy on Thursday. "I want to continue doing what I'm doing. Leadership is a liability for somebody like me, who's trying to build grass-roots support around the country for conservative candidates."
Such tensions reflect a deeper struggle among Republicans. Moderates say the party must court independent voters, seek bipartisan solutions and reverse declines among Hispanics. Conservatives urge a return to fiscal responsibility, limited government and other principles of GOP icon Ronald Reagan.
Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said DeMint's promotion of ultraconservative candidates might make it harder for the GOP to regain control of Congress.
DeMint, 58, couldn't disagree more.
"I'm going to help do everything I can this election to prove that a good common-sense conservative can be elected in any state in the country," he told his California audience last month. "And I believe it's going to happen."
As they've watched DeMint's growing national profile among hard-line conservative activists, some analysts think his ultimate target is a more powerful post than Senate Republican leader.
"He is cultivating a movement," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "I think he sees himself as a presidential candidate. With the intensity of people on his side, he can nudge aside people like (Mitt) Romney and Tim Pawlenty."
Conservative bloggers hawk "DeMint in 2012" T-shirts online. Shouts of "DeMint for president!" greeted him amid a standing ovation in February when he addressed thousands of delegates to the annual convention of the American Conservative Union in Washington.
Here, too, DeMint issued a flat denial.
"I don't want to be president," he told McClatchy. "I'd like to get back into business."
For now, DeMint, who owned a marketing firm before his 1998 election to the U.S. House of Representatives, is acting as a kind of conservative kingmaker in Senate Republican primaries. Among the contests in which he's endorsed candidates:
_ His Senate Conservatives Fund has raised $343,464 for former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. The conservative Cuban-American trailed Gov. Charlie Crist badly last year when DeMint endorsed him, but his rise in the polls led Crist to bolt the Republican Party last month and run as an independent.
DeMint hails Crist's move as a victory for conservatives. However, with the governor having re-established his polling lead as an independent, GOP operatives fear the potential loss of a once-surefire Republican Senate seat.
_ The DeMint PAC has provided $150,947 to California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. Polls show DeVore running third behind Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard chief, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell.
_ In Indiana, DeMint endorsed state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, a tea party favorite. Indiana Republican leaders coaxed former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats out of retirement, thinking he'd have a better chance of winning the general election in November; Coats defeated Stutzman and three other Republicans in the primary May 4.
DeMint faces token opposition in his own re-election campaign. Though he didn't take a firm term-limit pledge, he's said he expects his second six-year term to be his last.
Whatever his intentions, DeMint has amassed political power by harnessing the anti-government — and anti-President Barack Obama — anger first on display last summer at raucous town hall meetings.
The only U.S. senator to have addressed tea party rallies outside the Capitol in Washington, he's gained a growing, fervent following among conservative activists.
DeMint regularly lambastes "establishment" lawmakers from both parties for "big government spending" and building huge debts for future generations.
"The greatest enemies to the Constitution today are domestic," DeMint said last month in Santa Barbara. "And most of them are in the United States Congress or in the White House now."
Calling himself "a fish out of water in Washington right now," he urged his listeners to support a slew of ultraconservative Senate candidates who are challenging mainstream GOP office-seekers across the country.
"I'm not going to ask Americans to trust the Republican Party again until I've done everything I can to make sure that if we are given that trust, if we are given the majority, we're going to do what we say we're going to do," DeMint said.
(Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)
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