WASHINGTON — When an unheralded state senator, Deb Fischer, rose from nowhere last Tuesday to win Nebraska’s Republican Senate nomination, she beat more than just the state’s attorney general, Jon Bruning, and its treasurer, Don Stenberg.
She also beat U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, the Greenville Republican on a mission to bring what he sees as a more pure strain of conservatism to the Senate.
Fischer’s upset primary victory has shined a light on the maverick senator’s campaign apparatus, which operates like a guerrilla version of the official party campaign arm, picking underdog conservatives and priming their campaigns with money and grass-roots mobilization in the hope of electing those who share his views.
But Wednesday, as the dust cleared from Nebraska, DeMint’s pick, Stenberg, finished a distant third, and DeMint faced a backlash from his colleagues.
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican and former Nebraska governor, said he told DeMint that he had contributed to his own candidate’s defeat. The flood of money into the state turned the contest into a mudfest between the two favorites, he said, and “once they start throwing dirt, then dirt spreads everywhere.”
Johanns said his Senate colleague’s crusade left the impression that Stenberg was tied to shadowy outside groups trying to influence state politics.
“The question I kept getting asked is, ‘Why would an individual senator spend all of this money out here? What’s in it for him?”’ Johanns said.
DeMint, a product of the more polarized House, is the father of efforts to bring the lower chamber’s more combative tone to the Senate. By his own admission, his success has been mixed. In 2010, he broke with his party leadership in supporting some contenders, diluting unity as Republicans came up short.
To this day, some party stalwarts blame DeMint for the Republican Senate loss in Colorado — where his candidate, Ken Buck, vanquished the more moderate Jane Norton, then lost in November, in large part because women bolted to the Democrat, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. He also backed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, who beat the moderate Republican Mike Castle, only to be crushed by a relatively unknown Democrat, Chris Coons, in the fall.
The fear that stronger general election candidates could lose to more marginal conservatives is not as prevalent this year — in large part because virtually all the Republican candidates are claiming the mantle of Tea Party conservatism. Some Republicans say the millions of dollars DeMint is investing in primaries would be better spent against Democrats like U.S. Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who frequently has jousted with DeMint, said Nebraska held a lesson for any outside group tempted to intervene in the states with primaries still pending.
“I’ve learned that people don’t necessarily appreciate outsiders trying to dictate the primary selection,” Cornyn said.
DeMint was unrepentant, even ebullient Wednesday, and his political arm is plowing forward in Senate primaries to come, backing the underdog former House member in Wisconsin, Mark Neumann, in his fight against former Gov. Tommy Thompson. In Texas, he is supporting the former state solicitor general, Ted Cruz, in his fight against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and he is still sizing up the wide-open GOP Senate primary in Missouri.
In an interview, DeMint said that he was sorry his candidate had lost in Nebraska, but that he was “very happy with the results.” Bruning, whom he had deemed insufficiently conservative and ethically problematic, had been vanquished.
“Our goal was not to bring any more wishy-washy people into the Senate as Republicans, and that goal has been accomplished,” he said. “Nebraska picked the better candidate, but we helped loosen the soil.”
Much to his leadership’s chagrin, DeMint has become a power independent of the party apparatus. His political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, had raised $6 million through the end of March, the most of any leadership PAC and more than twice as much as any other senator’s political arm. The best-financed leadership PAC does not belong to anyone in, or near, the leadership.
The PAC has donated $960,000 to candidates and committees, in Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. An additional $1.2 million has gone into independent expenditures, from emails to online advertising to television buys.
Under pressure from Cornyn, DeMint vowed not to try to take down incumbent Republicans, but in February, another DeMint operation, Team DeMint, gave a half-million dollars to the Club for Growth Action Fund, a conservative political action committee. Club for Growth, in turn, poured resources into Indiana to help State Treasurer Richard E. Mourdock beat U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a six-term incumbent.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the impact of DeMint’s efforts tended to be overstated. Fischer won in Nebraska because “she burst onto the scene at exactly the right moment,” he said. She also scored the one endorsement that seems to really matter in Republican primaries, from Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate.
But Johanns was relentless in his criticism. DeMint’s efforts in Nebraska were “like me going to Massachusetts and telling Scott Brown how to win,” he said of the freshman senator facing a re-election battle.
DeMint pushed back. His track record is not perfect, he said, because he gets behind underdogs. “If we end up batting .500 at the end of the year, we’ve had a good year,” he added.
But he pointed to senators he has backed who are already shifting the ideological poles of the Senate: Marco Rubio of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
“The results over the last couple of years have said something very different,” he said to rebut Johann’s critique, adding, “We have a chance to really change the Senate.”