WASHINGTON _ South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint on Wednesday endorsed tea party favorite Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate race _ an endorsement that came just one day after the senator’s colleague, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, endorsed Paul’s opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
DeMint, a staunch conservative, has been mentioned as a challenger to McConnell for the Senate GOP leadership position. DeMint has said he is uninterested in the post.
"Senator McConnell and I are on different sides in this race but I support him as our leader," DeMint said in a statement.
“We appreciate all the conservative leaders supporting Rand Paul,” said Paul campaign manager David Adams. “Senator DeMint has been a stalwart in the U.S. Senate for the issues Paul cares about such as term limits, ending pork barrel spending and protecting the unborn. We expect that his support and help from a growing group of people will help Paul come May 18th.”
Paul spoke with DeMint earlier in the year in what Adams termed “an ideological conversation rather than a political one.” However, Paul did ask the senator for his endorsement.
"I'm endorsing Rand Paul because he's a true conservative who will stand up to the Washington establishment," DeMint said. "Rand has been running on the issues that matter since the beginning of this campaign. He's a strong advocate for balanced budgets, he wants to end the culture of earmarks, he supports term limits, and he's 100 percent pro-life. Rand is exactly the kind of leader Americans are looking for right now. He's not a career politician and he's got the guts to stand up to the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are being forced on us in Washington.”
DeMint endorsed tea party-backed Marco Rubio in the Florida U.S. Senate race against establishment pick and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has since announced he is running as an independent. In the California U.S. Senate Republican primary, DeMint endorsed state Assemblyman Chuck Devore over former Rep. Tom Campbell and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina.
DeMint's take-no-prisoners brand of politics led the National Review political journal to call him "Senator Tea Party" in a recent cover story. It's made him a hero among conservative activists nationwide.
“There’s no question that DeMint wants to become a major factional leader in the Republican Party by endorsing the conservative alternative in almost every circumstance,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “I don’t think he particularly cares what McConnell thinks. He’s trying to build a constituency outside of D.C.”
Grayson, a favorite of the GOP establishment, trails Paul, a poster child of the tea party movement and the son of 2008 presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, by double digits in most polls. A Paul win over Grayson would help measure the tea party's clout as a grassroots insurgency powered by disgruntled conservatives who bemoan what they see as an unprecedented expansion in federal government.
McConnell took the unusual step Tuesday of choosing sides in a Republican Kentucky primary when he endorsed Grayson, highlighting a growing uneasiness between the Republican Party establishment and grassroots conservatives.
Last month, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky, issued a surprise endorsement of Paul, calling him the one "strong, principled conservative" and the best choice to fill the seat Bunning will vacate later this year. Grayson was once considered a Bunning protege.
The DeMint and McConnell endorsements are a continuation of the tea party vs. the Republican establishment theme is also playing out in races in Florida, California and other states.
Rep. Hal Rogers endorsed Grayson on Monday, saying “Kentuckians need a senator who will work with me and the rest of our federal delegation to fight for our values and priorities.”
Rogers, R-Somerset, is popular in his 5th Congressional District, where voter turnout in the election is expected to be the highest statewide. He has received at least 70 percent of the vote since 1992 in the south-central and eastern Kentucky district.
Paul has been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is very popular within the tea party movement. Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Grayson, calling him “the real conservative in this race.”
Evangelical leader James Dobson on Monday switched his endorsement of Grayson to Paul, saying his earlier choice was “an embarrassing mistake”.
“McConnell’s life will be a heck of a lot easier if Grayson is the nominee, both in terms of the primary and the possibility that Paul would be in the Senate,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “I’m not sure that Paul has any desire to work with McConnell. Any help on appropriations is out. He also wouldn’t be a reliable vote. They call his father ‘Dr. No’ sometimes because he votes against everything.”
(James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed)