When Marco Rubio embarked on his campaign for the Republican nomination in the U.S. Senate race in Florida, he had very little public support among Republican power brokers, who overwhelmingly backed Charlie Crist, Florida governor and odds-on favorite at the time.
Enter Jim DeMint.
The junior Republican senator from South Carolina, who has developed a reputation for bucking authority in the Capitol, met with Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in Washington on May 12, 2009. DeMint liked what he heard enough to endorse Rubio a month later. Rubio now has a commanding lead in the polls over Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Crist, who bolted the GOP when it became clear he would lose to Rubio in the primary.
Rubio is among candidates DeMint has backed in the midterm elections as part of a multimillion-dollar effort to push the Senate's Republican caucus to the right. Those candidates -- mostly associated with the Tea Party movement -- also could help DeMint consolidate a leadership role in the Senate, assuming some or all of them win.
DeMint's early support of the then-relatively unknown Rubio did not go unnoticed. Across the country, other outsider, conservative hopefuls approached DeMint, looking for help in their battles against the establishment.
"There was a line of candidates down the street who wanted to talk to him," said Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for DeMint's political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
In an effort to bring more like-minded conservatives to the Senate, DeMint endorsed and funded alternative candidates in Republican primaries throughout the country. His Senate Conservatives Fund is still supporting 10 of these candidates in their general election bids, and all but one, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, are either leading in the polls or in very competitive races.
When the victors arrive in Washington in January -- and political analysts project four to nine of the DeMint picks will win -- they will bring with them a heightened level of influence and power for their benefactor within the Republican Party.
DeMint's goal throughout the election season has been to steer the Senate to the right. With his own re-election assured well before the Nov. 2 vote, DeMint focused his efforts on raising money for the types of conservatives he'd like to serve with in the Senate, especially those with an appetite for reigning in the federal budget. DeMint regularly found himself the only national Republican supporting certain candidates.
"He was the first one," said Owen Loftus, spokesman for Ken Buck, the Republican nominee for Senate in Colorado. "It wasn't until after the primary that others followed."
And DeMint has given more than his name to these candidates. Hoskins estimated that the Senate Conservatives Fund has spent more than $4 million so far on the 10 Senate candidates DeMint is backing.
In the process of nudging the Senate to the right, DeMint almost inevitably will provide a boost to his own influence within the chamber.
"DeMint is a faction leader now," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He'll have some votes. When you have votes that you can potentially deliver, you have power."
Sabato and other Beltway experts foresee the formation of a small but outspoken Tea Party caucus within the Senate Republicans. The belief is that these new senators will regularly side with DeMint because of a shared view of the role of government and, perhaps, a sense of debt.
"They will come in with sort of a natural affinity in terms of their ideas," said Robert Oldendick, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. "Plus, given the role that DeMint is playing in each of their campaigns, there is some kind of, 'OK, I owe some chips to this guy.' So he has become the de facto leader of this."
Hoskins insisted that DeMint's support of these candidates comes with no strings attached. But he expressed optimism that an influx of DeMint-backed candidates could change the direction of the Republican caucus in the Senate.
"I think you're going to see maybe a little more fight from the Republican Party in terms of its principles," Hoskins said. "A lot of people just focus on the numbers but in the Senate sometimes you don't need to have 50 votes. You need three people willing to stand up and speak out on something. If you've got that you can begin to rally the American people and before long you have 50 votes."
Some observers question DeMint's motives in getting so involved in the midterm elections. They claim DeMint is angling to become the Republican leader in the Senate or even to run for president. But Hoskins said DeMint's sole goal is to pack with the Senate with fellow hard-right conservatives.
"He wants to support these candidates to strengthen the Senate," Hoskins said.