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Friday, March 11, 2011

Jim DeMint machine could rival NRSC

By: Manu Raju and John Bresnahan
March 10, 2011 04:32 AM EST

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is already building an aggressive campaign machine for the 2012 Senate elections, promising to push his party further to the right, despite angering many in the GOP establishment with his political activities last year.

DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund wants to rake in a staggering $15 million, which is nearly $6 million more than in 2010 when his political action committee raised more money than any other politician’s PAC.

DeMint is now renting a Capitol Hill townhouse for his political operation — just a few blocks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm for Senate Republicans. And unlike the NRSC, which plans to stay out of contested primaries, DeMint is prepared to be an active force, jumping into intraparty battles by pushing conservative candidates against moderate Republicans.

The buildup is the latest sign that DeMint has become the pre-eminent conservative political activist in the Senate, and he plans to push candidates whose ideological views align with his and the tea party movement’s — even if it sets up a major clash with the NRSC, which always looks for the most electable prospect.


Last year, DeMint had mixed success with his endorsements, helping some like Florida’s Marco Rubio win office but also getting behind some who cost the party a seat, like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell.

In this election cycle, the South Carolina conservative has taken a more hands-on role in the operation, hiring staff, making phone calls for donations, holding fundraisers and meeting with scores of prospective candidates at the Capitol Hill base for his political operations.

DeMint told POLITICO his fundraising goal is a “big hill to climb, but that’s what we’re going to try to do.” And he said he wants to play a “complementary role” to the NRSC and avoid the kind of internal clashes that played out last election cycle.

But his move to a Capitol Hill townhouse is also an acknowledgment that his PAC — which launched in mid-2008 — has grown so rapidly that DeMint now needs to take extra precautions to wall off his political operations from his legislative office. Now his former legislative director, Matt Hoskins, is working full time for the Senate Conservatives Fund after working in a dual legislative and political role last cycle.

“We’ve got to make sure we do all that right,” he said, adding that it operated mostly out of “garages” in the past.

The PAC spent more than $23,000 just on office furniture in December and January, and the monthly rent for the townhouse is $4,700, according to Federal Election Commission records.

DeMint’s PAC has spent heavily so far this year on mailing lists, consultants and costs associated with setting up its own Capitol Hill office, according to campaign finance records. The Senate Conservatives Fund also shelled out $14,000 in January to rent a mailing list from Newsmax, a conservative publication based in Florida, plus an additional $15,600 on direct mail, FEC records show.

The Senate Conservatives Fund acts as a conduit by raising money — mainly through costly direct mail — for conservative Republican candidates, then funneling money directly to them or spending it on their behalf as an independent expenditure.

In the first two months of this year, the Senate Conservatives Fund raised an additional $500,000 — far more than it did in a similar period in 2009 — and there are signs that it will only continue to grow. Nearly 90 percent of prospective candidates across the country have sought meetings with DeMint, knowing that his endorsement would play well with conservative activists who are involved in Senate primaries.

To win DeMint’s endorsement, candidates are asked to fill out a questionnaire to see whether they are sufficiently conservative on issues ranging from earmarks to Social Security.

The biggest factor for DeMint, he said, is to “follow the grass roots” to determine which candidates are backed by his activist base. He has not yet decided which races to jump in to.

“We’re not going to go in and try to anoint candidates,” he said. “But hopefully, at some point, we’ll be invited in by the grass roots.”

This year, DeMint says he’s not trying to compete with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the NRSC. And both committees appear eager to avoid the same sort of collision course that prompted a nasty round of finger-pointing last November, when the GOP fell four seats short of winning control of the Senate, despite significantly narrowing the Democratic majority.

At that time, DeMint was blamed by many of his Republican colleagues for propping up weak candidates who either could not win a general election or needed tons of Washington cash to stay competitive in their races. But DeMint said he was backing those with strong principles of small government, which had been abandoned by many Washington Republicans. Still, he has repeatedly said he would rather have a caucus of 30 principled conservative senators than 60 who lack those convictions.

“I don’t expect to be on different pages like we were last time,” DeMint said of the NRSC. “I think they’re going to be much more careful about the candidates they select, and we will too.”

Cornyn said he’s had “extensive discussions” to “try as much as possible to eliminate any conflicts.” For instance, Cornyn said, when candidates come to the Hill to meet with DeMint, they should also meet with a “multitude of senators,” so “everyone kind of gets to know them better.”

Cornyn — who plans to run for the No. 2 position in GOP leadership next Congress — says he’ll stay out of contested primaries completely in 2012 after some of his endorsement decisions last cycle were received skeptically by the right.

Still, there are several candidates viewed as strong contenders by Washington Republicans — including former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Rep. Denny Rehberg in New Mexico and potentially former Gov. Linda Lingle in Hawaii — who may lack the conservative credentials DeMint wants.

When Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced she will not seek reelection next year, DeMint blasted an e-mail to his supporters saying the “Washington establishment” was lining up behind Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, but that “the two candidates we hear most about from conservatives” are Texas railroad commissioner Michael Williams and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz. The NRSC plans to stay out of the primary in Cornyn’s home state.

“If there are three or four good conservatives in the state, we might not get in,” DeMint said. “It’s only when there’s a contrast between Republicans [that] we’ll look to get involved.”

In a peace offering to the seven GOP incumbents who are still seeking reelection, DeMint has vowed not to back any primary challenger against them — even in the case of Maine’s moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe. Instead, DeMint will focus his attention on open seats and against the 23 Democratic seats that are in cycle.

“I think with 23 Democrat seats, I’ve got plenty to do,” he said.

Still, DeMint has met with Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar’s tea-party-backed primary opponent, Richard Mourdock, but the senator says he’d only consider getting involved if Lugar dropped out of the race.

“Candidates from a lot of states are coming to see us where there is still an incumbent and are just waiting to see if that incumbent happens to run again. But I’m not going get involved against any of our incumbents.”

© 2011 Capitol News Company, LLC


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