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DeMint’s Midterm Gambles Raise His Political Profile

For an incumbent trying to keep his seat, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint seems a lot more focused on the campaigns of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Marco Rubio in Florida and a half-dozen other Republican candidates around the country.

DeMint’s political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has already contributed more than $2 million to candidates who meet DeMint’s conservative criteria. (“We support only those candidates who believe and will fight to restrain our government, so you and your family can live free, independent and prosperous lives,” DeMint says in one video.) A spokesman for the fund says they are shooting to raise $5 million by November.

So far, some of the most surprising Republican primary victories of the midterm election season have been helped along by DeMint. And while he’s little known outside his home state, this election could make him a conservative star — and for that he can partly thank his unlikely opponent.

DeMint’s doing very little of his own campaigning and wouldn’t agree to an interview for this story because, well, as political scientist Scott Huffmon explains: “DeMint feels … that he’s probably cruising towards re-election. I think most of the country has learned about Alvin Greene, the Democratic nominee for Senate, and the controversy that it’s caused.”

Greene is the 32-year-old unemployed military veteran with no organized campaign, a pending felony charge for obscenity and a knack for giving awkward interviews to the media — like this one a month ago when he promised to end the recession:

“That’s what I’ll do. That’s what I will do,” he said. “Because I have real plans. And my opponent has nothing!”

But DeMint did have a 42-point lead over Greene in one recent poll. So, Huffmon says, DeMint’s got time and money to spend on something bigger.

“This’ll absolutely make DeMint a power broker, a kingmaker within the Republican Party, to the degree that he is successful,” says Huffmon, a professor at South Carolina’s Winthrop University.

Here’s the risk: The candidates DeMint is backing fall to the Republican right — more in line with the Tea Party movement. Most ran against chosen heirs of the Republican Party establishment, and DeMint waded right into the primary fray. So if DeMint’s picks lose in November, party-establishment types are likely to blame him for pushing unelectable Tea Partiers onto the ballot.

Colorado is one of the states where DeMint placed a bet. The Senate Conservatives Fund spent more than $300,000 to land Ken Buck on the victory platform instead of the candidate favored by Senate Republican leaders. Now the fund is aggressively soliciting donations for Buck’s general-election bid, bypassing state and national Republican Party fundraising efforts. In essence, that’s draining money from the party’s own pockets, Huffmon says.

“That again is setting up potential conflict between the establishment and Jim DeMint,” he says.

But Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado GOP, says DeMint’s efforts aren’t in conflict with the state party.

“More importantly, I think Sen. DeMint is going to be … helping to elect some great senators across the country,” Wadhams adds.

And boosting his own profile, too?

“I assume so and that’s fine with me,” Wadhams says.

A spokesman for DeMint says the senator didn’t come to Washington to make friends. But his efforts to get conservative darlings elected could give him a built-in class of freshmen senators who owe him big.

And when you’re a kingmaker, who needs friends?

NPR, August 26, 2010