WASHINGTON - 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 and California state Rep. Chuck DeVore 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 S.C. Republican Party 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 has a very large megaphone to speak to a remarkable amount of Republicans all over the country," Dawson told McClatchy. "I get calls from Republicans every day trying to get in touch with Jim DeMint or to relay their thoughts to him.
"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's expenditures on behalf of other Senate candidates indicate his confidence in his own re-election prospects.
With $2.8 million on hand in his campaign committee, DeMint has no Republican primary opposition. In the general election, he faces Democrats Chad McGowan, a Rock Hill lawyer; Ashley Cooper, a Charleston attorney; and Mike Ruckes, a retired Ford Motor Co. executive from Detroit who now lives in Summerville.
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. Every vote I take is not about South Carolina. It's about the United States of America."
DeMint was like a public TV marathon host on the conference call, urging listeners to go to www.senateconservatives.com and donate. "We need folks who will defend the country and not the club," he said. "The Senate is a club. We need people who will help us change the system and save the country."
DeMint, a Greenville resident in the heavily Republican Upstate, hosted the conference call with Eric Erickson, a founder of the popular conservative blog redstate.com.
After the NRSC endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie 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. "We must not waste our time or energy with them," Erickson wrote on redstate.com. "Join me in pledging no money, no help, no aid and no support for the NRSC's efforts in the 2010 election cycle."
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.
"Charlie Crist is extremely liberal and deserves to be voted out of office," Erickson said on the conference call, which drew 20,000 listeners over two hours.
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.
Responding to a bill in Washington state to ban the sale of dishwasher detergent made with phosphates, Erickson wrote in March: "At what point do the people tell the politicians to go to hell? At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator's house, pull him outside and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?"
When Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize last month, Erickson wrote, "I did not realize the Nobel Committee had affirmative-action quotas it had to meet."
DeMint aides angrily rejected such criticism as "guilt by association." Just because the senator works with Erickson, they said, doesn't mean he condones everything the blogger writes.
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-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
While the National Republican Senatorial Committee is now backing Toomey in Pennsylvania, it infuriated conservatives by initially endorsing Specter before he switched parties.
After Specter became a Democrat, Graham and other prominent Republicans unsuccessfully urged former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a moderate, to run for the Senate.
Graham blamed the Club for Growth, an influential anti-tax group headed by Toomey, for forcing Specter out of the Republican Party.
In working to unseat California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, although the NRSC hasn't endorsed Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, it urged her to run. She's picked up a slew of high-profile endorsements from McConnell, McCain, Graham and other senators.
Several conservative senators with whom DeMint has worked closely have endorsed Fiorina as well, among them Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.
DeMint, though, is backing long-shot candidate DeVore, an Orange County state legislator since 2005, in the June 10 primary. "I'm convinced he's going to work with me in Washington to shake things up," DeMint told activists of DeVore in the Nov. 3 call. "We need folks who'll stand up in our (Republican) conference and say, 'This is wrong.' We need to turn things around."
Some Republican congressional aides, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said DeMint has an exaggerated sense of his importance. They mocked his endorsement of DeVore.
"While he's appealing to the far right, he's also in some ways marginalizing himself," said one aide. "Chuck DeVore has $56,000 in (campaign) cash on hand in a state where it's going to cost $25 million to run a Senate race."