Santa Barbara is about as far from Greenville, S.C., as you can get in the continental United States, but Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) cares more about principle than geography. He is leading a conservative insurgency across America. Speaking at the David Horowitz Freedom Center's annual retreat here late last month, DeMint told the faithful that if they want to return to the principles of limited government, they need to elect people who believe in limited government: "I came into the Senate with 55 Republicans, George W. Bush in the White House and large majorities of Republicans in the House, and we didn't do what we promised," he said. "We're not going to change the Senate until we change the people who are there."
His vehicle for change is the Senate Conservatives Fund. Most senators have "leadership PACs"--incumbency machines they use to raise money for each other. DeMint, by contrast, is using his PAC to support conservative underdogs running against establishment Republicans. He got the idea in 2008 while making fundraising calls at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Donors told him bluntly they would not give the GOP a dime until it returned to conservative principles. He began asking: What if there was a PAC that would give only to conservative candidates? The Senate Conservatives Fund was born. DeMint raised $1.3 million in 2009 and has set a goal of raising another $3 million in 2010--all of it going to insurgent candidates shunned by the GOP establishment.
His first endorsement was to support a primary bid against one of his then-Republican colleagues, Arlen Specter. DeMint backed former Rep. Pat Toomey (disclosure: I once worked for Toomey), and Specter soon switched parties to run as Democrat. Soon after that, the NRSC recruited popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to run for Senate. DeMint backed Marco Rubio, who was then 30 points down in the polls. Rubio soon surged ahead of Crist, and the Florida governor announced last week he was bolting the GOP primary to make an independent run.
DeMint's success in these races gave the Senate Conservatives Fund credibility, and he has since charged into several more races. DeMint endorsed State Assemblyman Chuck Devore in the California Senate primary against liberal Republican Tom Campbell and the NRSC-favored candidate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. On April 14, DeMint endorsed Colorado District Attorney Ken Buck in his race against the NRSC-favored candidate, former lieutenant governor Jane Norton. And on April 21, he endorsed State Sen. Marlin Stutzman in tomorrow's Indiana GOP primary against the NRSC's candidate, former senator Dan Coats. In a matter of days, DeMint raised nearly $220,000 for Stutzman, which he hopes has made the race competitive. "I'm not sure if I got in soon enough," he says.
Critics say DeMint is hurting the party's chances in November by backing ideologically pure candidates when moderates would stand a better chance of winning. But virtually all of DeMint's conservatives are leading their Democratic opponents in the polls. In Florida, Rubio is running ahead of both Crist and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek in a three-way race. In Pennsylvania, Toomey is a solid 10 points ahead of Specter. In Colorado, Buck leads Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, and in Indiana Stutzman is running ahead of Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth. Even in California, where the race is an uphill battle for all the Republicans, DeVore runs better against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer than the NRSC's anointed candidate, Carly Fiorina. While DeMint is willing to take risks, he is not interested in kamikaze missions. His goal is not to purify the GOP; it is to elect conservatives who will work with him for change in the Senate. "I don't pick anyone who doesn't have a chance in the general election," he told me.
DeMint also picks his battles. He has officially stayed out of Utah, where his Senate colleague Bob Bennett may lose his place on the GOP primary ballot at next weekend's state convention. And he has thus far stayed out of Kentucky, where Republican leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked candidate, Trey Grayson, is being challenged by Rand Paul. Asked why, DeMint says, "I'd like to maintain a working relationship with my colleagues here." Besides, he adds, "I'm not needed"--the insurgents are leading without him. He says he is watching the Kentucky race, however. "I want to avoid poking my finger in the leader's eye, but I'm not going to let it get unfair."
While some see the 2010 as best chance to elect Republicans in a generation, DeMint sees it as the best chance to elect conservatives in a generation. "We've got to have an earthquake election," he says. If his insurgents win in November, there will be a new crop of senators whose first loyalty will be to DeMint and conservative principles, not the GOP leadership. That would be an earthquake alright--one whose aftershocks will be felt in the Senate for years to come.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.