WASHINGTON — A tea party upstart's shocking election win in Delaware accelerated Sen. Jim DeMint's ascent, left him as the nation's most powerful hard-line conservative politician outside of Sarah Palin — but exposed the South Carolina Republican to attacks that he'd helped destroy his party's chances of regaining Senate control.
Charles Krauthammer, an influential syndicated conservative commentator, spared no punches in criticizing DeMint and Palin for having helped political neophyte Christine O'Donnell defeat nine-term Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Senate GOP primary Tuesday.
Krauthammer branded as "reckless and irresponsible" the endorsement of O'Donnell by Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and DeMint, and its galvanizing effect on tea party stalwarts.
"The very people who have most alerted the country to the perils of President Obama's social democratic agency may have just made it impossible for Republicans to retake the Senate and definitively stop that agenda," Krauthammer wrote.
Castle, endorsed by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, was the handpicked choice of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to win the prize Delaware seat that had been long held by Vice President Joe Biden.
"Senate Republicans are now even more embroiled in an intraparty civil war in which DeMint has been the lead rebel," reported Politico, a widely read Capital Hill newspaper and blog.
CNN commentator Gloria Borger called the GOP infighting "fratricide of the highest order."
Castle said he won't endorse O'Donnell in the general election. As many as a dozen other Senate Republican losers have also refused to back their primary vanquishers in November.
As analysts across the political spectrum moved Delaware from a possible Senate GOP pickup in November to a near-certain Republican loss, DeMint defiantly predicted another surprise.
"I really think she's got a good chance of winning," DeMint told McClatchy. "Independent voters, who represent about a third of Delaware's voters, are looking for somebody who's not tied in with any party establishment. The best pick on that list is going to be Christine."
But even if an O'Donnell loss to Democrat Chris Coons costs the Republicans a Senate majority — they need to pick up 10 seats — don't expect DeMint to say he's sorry.
"The priority is not first the majority," DeMint said. "We had a big majority with 55 Republican senators. We had a big House majority. We had Bush in the White House. We spent too much, borrowed too much, expanded the government too much — and they (the voters) threw us out."
It's those sorts of hard-hitting, unapologetic salvos that have made DeMint a hero among many conservative activists across the country and helped his Senate leadership PAC raise $5.5 million — a staggering sum for a freshman senator.
"Perhaps no Republican politician has seen his star rise higher in the past two years than South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint," Ray Gustini wrote online Friday for The Atlantic magazine.
DeMint is paying no attention to — and spending no money on — his own re-election campaign. He's expected to sail to victory over Democrat Alvin Greene.
Within 48 hours of O'Donnell's primary win, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund collected $177,000 for her.
That windfall increased to $3.2 million the amount DeMint has contributed to a dozen hardcore conservative Senate candidates in the last year, most of them challenging GOP establishment candidates.
The outcomes Tuesday in Delaware, Wisconsin (where DeMint endorsed winner Ron Johnson) and New Hampshire (where he backed loser Ovide Lamontagne) left DeMint with an 8-3 record this Senate Republican primary season.
Most of the eight winning candidates DeMint endorsed and funded started off as long-shot underdogs taking on GOP powerhouse foes with more money and more party connections.
Among the winners are former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck in Colorado and Salt Lake City lawyer Mike Lee in Utah.
"Jim DeMint, superstar," enthused Human Events Online, a popular blog among conservatives.
"Sen. Jim DeMint is now one of the most powerful forces in the Republican Party," wrote National Review blogger Daniel Foster.
"Depending on the strength of what appears to be the impending GOP sweep, DeMint may play an important role in the election of eight new Republican senators this fall," Kenneth Tomlinson writes in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, a widely read magazine among conservatives.
Three of DeMint's endorsed candidates — Rubio, Buck and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania — are ahead in general election polls, while another three are running even.
Only O'Donnell, well behind Coons in polls since her primary win, and Dino Rossi, trailing incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington state, now face significantly uphill battles in November.
At a fundraiser for Murray last month, Obama — who DeMint has accused of leading the nation to socialism — mocked the South Carolinian's habit of scolding his colleagues in speeches on the Senate floor.
"I'm always sympathetic to Patty because she was always trying to catch the plane back home, and when the votes went late, she'd be looking at her watch and thinking, 'Well, that (plane) just left, and there's one more, and I've got 10 minutes, and Jim DeMint is talking,'" Obama said to roars of laughter from the crowd of fellow Democrats.
Whatever the final post-election numbers, most analysts expect DeMint's influence to grow in the next session of Congress.
"The Jim DeMint Caucus should be a strong, powerful deterrent to those in the Republican Party who will want to work with the most liberal president of our lifetime to preserve earmarks, elements of ObamaCare and billions in wasteful spending," said Brian Darling, a Heritage Foundation expert on the Senate.
DeMint's rapidly rising profile prompts persistent published reports that he's gunning for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's post — reports he just as persistently denies.
"I fully support Mitch McConnell and our entire leadership team, and I am looking forward to working with them," DeMint said.
DeMint also rejects the growing calls from conservative activists that he run for president in 2012.
"I'm not looking past 2010 right now," DeMint said. "I have no plans to run for president."
Told that his denial of White House aspirations sounded like a Shermanesque stance that didn't completely shut the door, DeMint chuckled.
"I'm getting pretty good at this," he said.
However many of his acolytes are elected to the Senate, one challenge DeMint may face will be reining them once they get to Washington.
Shortly after DeMint-backed Rand Paul won Kentucky's Senate Republican primary in May, he sparked a furor by suggesting that Congress might revisit the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
DeMint, who was compelled to state his support for the landmark legislation, admits that he took Paul to the woodshed for a polite dressing-down after his comments.
Already since O'Donnell's primary win in Delaware, reporters have asked DeMint about a string of her past provocative remarks — which Democratic operatives have gleefully shipped around Washington under headlines accusing her of holding bizarre views.
Dana Milbank, a Washington Post satirist who regularly skewers politicians of all political stripes, highlighted a few of O'Donnell's choicest comments in a Friday blog.
"I've long belittled Delaware for contributing little to the nation other than traffic jams and toll booths," Milbank wrote. "But if the First State sends Christine O'Donnell to Washington, all will be forgiven."
In November 2007, O'Donnell explained to Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly why she opposes stem cell research.
"American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains," O'Donnell said.
Former campaign aides to O'Donnell told Politico on Friday that she had believed Biden was tapping her phone line.
The aides said O'Donnell rejected their advice in her failed 2008 Senate bid not to toss thousands of suntan lotion packets from a parade float to illustrate her slogan: "Don't get burned by higher taxes."
"Half the people in the street thought she was throwing condoms from the truck," said David Keegan, O'Donnell's former campaign finance director.
DeMint pooh-poohed concerns about O'Donnell's penchant for odd behavior and predicted she'll become a loyal soldier in his growing Senate brigade.
"She's going to support a balanced budget, less spending and earmark reforms," he said. "Those are the things that people are asking for all over the country. Obviously, (opponents) are trying to vilify her, but she's going to be a good candidate."