Thanks to his aggressive involvement in a number of primary campaigns
, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has been dubbed by some in the media as the conservative "kingmaker
." But now, even some conservatives are quietly questioning whether that's an apt title.
In recent months, DeMint has pulled a power play of sorts with his Senate Conservatives Fund
, which essentially serves as a shadow National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
The PAC is run by Matt Hoskins, who also serves as DeMint's spokesman and who, according to one conservative who asked not to be named, "tries to be DeMint's 'big man.' " Hoskins was previously DeMint's chief of staff when his boss served in the House.
To be sure, DeMint's early endorsement -- and continued support -- of Marco Rubio
over establishment favorite Charlie Crist in the Florida Senate race has garnered him much deserved praise. But other DeMint endorsements have proven less effective -- and more controversial.
His supporters say the unorthodox and aggressive use of the Senate Conservatives Fund (the "clubby" nature of Congress' upper body usually precludes members from spending PAC money to defeat Republican colleagues) in many ways resulted from the backlash against unpopular intrusion of party committees
into primary campaigns.
Ironically, instead of cautioning the party committees against endorsing moderates in primaries, DeMint's solution has been to meddle in the campaigns himself.
In doing so, he has emerged as a power broker -- whom even his fellow senators are judged by. (Aside from intervening in primary campaigns, his PAC set up a "scorecard
" to rank senators. Interestingly, DeMint is the only
one to have scored a perfect 100 percent.)
The South Carolina lawmaker has long been revered among conservatives, but playing in contested primaries usually earns more enemies than friends. So it's no surprise that some conservatives are questioning whether this heavy-handed strategy is self-serving -- and whether it is doing more harm than good.
Dan Riehl, a conservative who blogs at Riehlworldview
, says the DeMint approach "seemed specifically designed to target individuals closely aligned with Mitch McConnell, while granting [John] McCain a pass." He adds, "I came away with the impression that it was more an inside the beltway strategy derived to increase the influence of Jim DeMint."
"Jim DeMint's efforts to support conservative candidates ignored or even opposed by the party establishment are laudable. But it's important to remember that even D.C. conservatives only have a Beltway's eye view of what is going on," says James Antle, an editor at The American Spectator
. "In competitive Senate primaries like Indiana, California, and New Hampshire where you have one establishment candidate and multiple conservatives, failure to pay close attention to local conditions can actually throw elections to the least conservative candidate."
If you read national conservative blogs, as I often do, you will likely get the impression that the backlash against the party committees was based solely on ideology. To be sure, conservatives greatly resented the GOP apparatus' support of moderate candidates like Crist and Scozzafava (whom they misguidedly viewed as more "electable"), but when you talk to grassroots conservatives in those states, it becomes clear they also resented the notion of having D.C. "experts" tell them what to do.
In this regard, as Antle implied, DeMint's operation seems just as guilty of inserting itself in races as the NRSC and the NRCC -- and of making many of the same mistakes.
DeMint's PAC has endorsed Ken Buck in Colorado, Chuck DeVore in California, Mike Lee in Utah, Marlin Stutzman in Indiana, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Rand Paul, who just won the Kentucky GOP primary.
On one hand, DeMint is taking on the establishment, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, over ideology -- and that is viewed by most conservatives as a very a good thing. The question, though, involves his motives.
For example, DeMint's opposition to Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah -- and his opposition to McConnell's handpicked candidate in Kentucky -- has played out as a sort of proxy war. The real battle is being fought between DeMint and McConnell, but in order to keep it from going "nuclear", conventional warfare is being waged in primaries around the nation. Whereas the Club for Growth (which has years of experience with primary campaigns) wisely focused solely on ousting Bennett, DeMint chose to back attorney Mike Lee, thus, setting himself up as a kingmaker. The Club for Growth took a scalp and declared victory. DeMint wanted more but wound up with less: Lee got just 43 percent of the vote at the Utah convention, trailing conservative businessman Tim Bridgewater, who won 57 percent
. They will face off in a June 22 primary.
DeMint's team was actively involved at the Utah convention on behalf of Lee -- and anecdotal evidence suggests that may have turned off more Utah delegates than it attracted. What is more, after the convention, DeMint's team wasted little time in taking control of much of Lee's campaign operations.
The burgeoning schism became most evident when the DeMint-endorsed
candidate, Rand Paul, trounced the McConnell-backed favorite, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, in the Kentucky Senate race. That this took place in McConnell's own backyard (one can't imagine Lyndon Johnson -- or even Bob Dole -- tolerating a fellow senator's meddling in his home state) tells you all you need to know about the level of acrimony.
DeMint has attempted to minimize the slight, having pledged to support McConnell for another term as minority leader. At the same time, though, DeMint boasted
, "The Washington establishment threw everything they had at [Rand Paul], and yet he prevailed." Clearly, McConnell is a major part of the "establishment" DeMint was referring to.
"The Kentucky primary seemed more about handing Mitch McConnell a loss . . . than handing Republicans a win," says Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger for LibertyPundits.net
. "It was clear before he was elected, that Rand Paul's positions would be attacked by the Democrats, and I wonder if this obvious reality entered into any strategic thinking on Jim DeMint's part."
To be sure, DeMint was largely responsible for helping prop up Paul, a political novice, but within hours of winning the nomination, the iconoclastic and libertarian-leaning candidate became embroiled in a controversy over, of all things, the Civil Rights Act.
According to Riehl, "the notion that so-called conservatives would back an obviously problematic Libertarian like Rand Paul, especially with his close connections to Adam Kokesh
, presumably chiefly to weaken McConnell, made the entire thing a farce, as far as I'm concerned. There is no acceptable rationale for an honest conservative to support Paul, while giving McCain a pass, unless one has an agenda they are not disclosing."
There is also a pragmatic reason for conservatives to wonder about the Rand Paul endorsement and election. One doubts an experienced political hand like Grayson would have gone on NPR or MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" immediately following a primary victory, much less try to re-litigate the Civil Rights Act, but that's exactly what Paul did.
In any event, there's concern that Paul has changed the subject from Obama's government grab of health care and role in ballooning deficits to race and civil rights (the fact that it comes on the heels of the Arizona immigration law allows liberals to portray the this as a trend of Republicans being insensitive to race issues). If the Kentucky race becomes competitive (Paul still holds a significant lead) -- or if the gaffe begins to hurt conservative candidates nationally -- some may blame DeMint for propping up a candidate who was not ready for prime time.
While Paul at least won his primary, California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (who is running to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer) poses a different problem for DeMint
. DeVore is a solid conservative and is within reach of winning the GOP nomination, though one could safely say the odds do not favor it
. And should it be perceived that DeVore cost Carly Fiorina the nomination by siphoning off conservative votes
-- and thus helping liberal Republican Tom Campbell win -- DeMint may be criticized for his intervention there as well.
By some accounts, that is precisely what took place recently in Indiana, where DeMint endorsed a little-known candidate named Marlin Stutzman
for Senate. DeMint's candidate did not win -- former Sen. Dan Coats (a moderate Republican and a favorite of the NRSC) won the primary with just 39 percent of the vote. DeMint helped Stutzman raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately gave him enough support to finish in second
place. (To show how cynical and incestuous D.C. is, DeMint, his PAC and Dan Coats all share the same fundraising team to shake-down K Street
Still, some conservatives note that Coats won with just 39 percent, meaning that if conservatives had rallied around one candidate, they would have won. Some believe that former Rep. John Hostettler -- an iconoclastic conservative who represented the 8th District of Indiana from 1995-2007 -- would have won had DeMint not intervened so strongly on behalf of Stutzman. Clearly, DeMint hurt Hostettler and helped Stutzman, though not enough to help him win. When I asked Hostettler's campaign chairman, Carl Little, whether DeMint inadvertently helped elect Coats, he said, "As far as it being 'inadvertent,' I'm not so sure. Had he been serious about Stutzman winning, it seems he would have been in much sooner and in a bigger way."
In fairness, Hostettler's fundraising numbers were abysmal, but that is almost another argument for why DeMint might have helped him win the nomination. I'm told DeMint personally dislikes Hostettler, due to his past votes, including one against the invasion of Iraq, and some speculate that this animosity ultimately (and inadvertently) led to Coats' victory.
An additional concern about DeMint's operation -- and its similarity to the party committees -- is that when supporting novice candidates, his staff "encourages" them to hire the operation's handpicked consultants (read: friends and past associates). This is sadly what goes on at campaign committees all too often: National consultants develop relationships with committee staffers who, in turn, throw them work -- sometimes worth substantial amounts of money. In return, when these staffers leave the committees, they often find cushy jobs with the consultants they've been helping. In many ways, the committee staffer "revolving door" is similar to the congressman-turned-lobbyist paradigm.
Others are concerned that DeMint is co-opting bloggers to support his candidates and attack opponents. Citing the correlation between its endorsements and DeMint's, some have accused the conservative website RedState of being the de facto communications arm for DeMint (one writer even incorrectly called RedState's Erick Erickson DeMint's "partner"
But DeMint has thus far chosen not
to endorse some RedState-endorsed candidates, such as Nikki Haley
(running for governor in DeMint's home state of South Carolina) and Nevada Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian. Still, the overlap is hard to miss.
Conservatives are loath to criticize either DeMint or Erickson, but this has been the subject of much talk around the virtual "water cooler." As Melissa Clouthier told me, "I don't know the relationship there, but it has been something I've noticed."
Erickson denies any coordination, telling me he intentionally avoids talking with DeMint's staff because of this perception. When it comes to deciding whom to endorse, he says: "I've got hundreds of people in each state at RedState. I see where the grassroots are. I get about 2,400 e-mails a day."
But Erickson says it's only logical that he and DeMint would often come down on the same side in many races: "I think [DeMint] is more plugged into the grassroots than any of the other guys in Washington," he says. Erickson has also encouraged his readers to donate to endorsed candidates via DeMint's PAC
Erickson implied to me -- and based on the chronological order of the endorsements, this rings true -- that DeMint may be taking his cues from RedState's endorsements, not the other way around.
It remains to be seen whether or not DeMint's 2010 foray into so many races will make him a hero or a zero, but one thing is for sure, he has raised his profile significantly. DeMint has long been viewed as a conservative favorite. In this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll, he had higher approval ratings than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck
Conservatives I spoke to seem happy when DeMint takes on the establishment, but concerned about the unintended consequences of an outsider inadvertently hurting local conservative candidates. Others believed DeMint was using his PAC to seek personal revenge on political enemies like Hostettler and McConnell. They also fear his staff may be using heavy-handed tactics and the grandeur of a senator to "muscle" the candidates (and their local advisers and campaign staffs) that DeMint endorses.
Ultimately, DeMint will be judged by what happens in November. As Riehl notes, "If in the end, the effort somehow benefits Erick's and DeMint's reputations as self-professed grassroots leaders, without measurably improving the strength of the genuine conservative movement in D.C., then members of the grassroots would have a right to ask who really won from the strategy that was adopted, as well as what opportunities may have been damaged, if not lost, as a result."