Even as U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint emerges from the elections with widespread recognition as leader of a resurgent conservative force in Congress, he faces criticism that the millions he spent on hard-right candidates cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.
Five DeMint-backed candidates were elected to the Senate, but five were defeated – with a sixth, Joe Miller of Alaska, trailing incumbent GOP U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in her historic write-in bid as an independent to keep her seat.
That mixed record in the general election lags the 8-3 tally the South Carolina Republican compiled through the spring and summer as his Senate Conservatives Fund contributed to candidates in GOP primaries dominated by conservative activists.
Some commentators focused on the DeMint candidates who won Tuesday, from Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida to Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Mike Lee in Utah.
A Christian Science Monitor blogger described DeMint as “the unofficial head of a newly empowered conservative wing of the (Republican) party.”
USA Today dubbed DeMint the “Tea Party kingpin,” while an MSNBC anchor described him as “the leader of the Tea Party movement.”
Other analysts, including prominent conservatives and Republican Senate colleagues, pointed to the DeMint acolytes who lost.
“Jim DeMint and (2008 GOP vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin are responsible for the fact that the Senate did not go Republican,” Mort Kondracke, a Fox News commentator, said on a post-election panel.
“They’re the ones who are responsible for Christine O’Donnell (of Delaware),” Kondracke said. “They’re the ones who are responsible for Joe Miller in Alaska. They’re the ones who are responsible for Ken Buck in Colorado. They’re the ones who are responsible for Sharron Angle in Nevada.”
Conservative columnist David Frum said the election results actually weakened DeMint because Republicans lost “three ridiculously winnable Senate seats” by putting up “incompetent Tea Party radicals” that he backed.
“They were supported by an alternative power structure within the GOP – the fundraising power of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund,” Frum wrote. “Their defeat raises important questions about the whole Tea Party project. It also weakens the alternative power structure in the GOP and strengthens the power of the party’s formal leaders against its informal ones. That’s all good news. Goodbye and good riddance.”
DeMint tread a tightrope as he responded to all the acclaim and aspersion.
In an extended, tense exchange with CNN anchor John King the day after the elections, DeMint denied that some of the other GOP senators are angry with him.
“Many of your fellow Republicans, Senator DeMint, suggest perhaps your activities cost them a chance at a majority,” King said.
“Well, I haven’t heard that from any of my colleagues out here,” DeMint responded.
“Trust me, they’re emailing – they and their staff are emailing around, grumbling about this,” King said.
DeMint portrayed himself as a Republican unifier one moment, and a defiant party outsider the next.
“There’s no reason for there to be any disunity in the Republican Party,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a Republican Party that’s bold and more unified than we’ve seen in years. I look forward to working with our leadership team.”
DeMint said Republican lawmakers will be united in trying to cut spending, “defund” President Barack Obama’s landmark health care reforms and extend President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.
At the same time, DeMint mocked critics of Tea Party candidates and activists.
“I worked to elect Republicans all over the country,” he said. “Anyone who says that the Tea Party was detrimental is so completely out of touch that they represent the problem in Washington.”
DeMint claims 40 percent of Tea Party members are Democrats or independents, and he asserted that the conservative movement represents mainstream Americans.
“People are going to find that these Tea Party-backed candidates are actually right in the middle of where America really is,” DeMint told Fox News anchor Jenna Lee. “There’s nothing radical about balancing your checkbook, and these candidates have run on simple ideas like banning parochial pork-barrel earmarks and balancing our budget, repealing Obamacare.”
DeMint’s insistence in numerous national TV interviews that congressional Republicans will stand together contradicted his Wall Street Journal call to arms to the new GOP senators he helped elect.
“Tea Party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country – not to be co-opted by the club,” he wrote. “So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.”
Politico, a widely read blog and newspaper in Washington, said the election outcome amplifies the DeMint-Lindsey Graham struggle for the soul of their party.
It ran a photo of the two South Carolina senators standing at a podium, looking away from each other with sour expressions.
“Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint represent the elements of the GOP in conflict,” Politico reported.
Graham also walked a tightrope in assessing DeMint’s impact.
“Senator DeMint overall has done a good thing for the Republican Party,” Graham said. “What he tried to do is get conservative candidates that carry the reform banner to embrace fiscal sanity. I really do believe that Senator DeMint is going to help the Republican (congressional) conference in Washington become more conservative when it comes to spending and limited government.”
Saying that DeMint “has become a national player,” Graham added: “He has not been diminished. He has grown in stature by what he tried to do.