Boy are some Senate Republicans unhappy with Jim DeMint. They had a good night by any measure, picking up six seats from Democrats, but it is clear a number are holding the South Carolina senator personally responsible for keeping those numbers from rising even higher, possibly even from taking control of the chamber.
One could forgive House Democrats for beating each other up after last night's thumping (or, as Obama called it, "a shellacking"). Senate Democrats, as well, even though they did retain the majority and their leader. But Senate Republicans?
DeMint set out in 2008 to get "principled conservatives" elected - many who were not the chosen candidates of the establishment. At times, that even seemed to be the goal, as he happily bucked his leadership, saying raucous primaries were good for the party. DeMint told his growing cadre of supporters he wanted to harness the power of the Tea Party, and he started endorsing conservatives, 11 in all, in the 2010 race (the list is here). Many won their primaries, leading some to call DeMint a "king maker."
But not everyone in his party agrees. "He should be called the undertaker, not the kingmaker," said one senior Senate GOP aide on Wednesday, who added, "You could call it a big night for the Club for Growth, but not for Jim DeMint."
The anti-tax Club for Growth first bankrolled the Utah shocker where three-term Sen. Bob Bennett was tossed out after the party nominating convention in favor of new-comer Mike Lee. After that, DeMint endorsed Lee.
Republicans quietly (and now openly) fumed, especially as they saw DeMint's support for three GOP candidates, who many thought were not electable, as possibly devastating for their majority prospects: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado.
One senior Republican strategist, enraged, e-mailed to Fox, "DeMint's 'kingmaking' cost Republicans a shot at the Senate. O'Donnell and Angle lost seats that were sure pick-ups for (Delaware Rep. Mike) Castle and (Former Nevada state senator Sue) Lowden. Buck may lose another that was game over if (Lt. Gov. Jane) Norton was the nominee...The only DeMint candidates that won were (Marco) Rubio and Rand Paul, and both ran very mainstream general election campaigns. In Rand's case, with a lot of help from the 'establishment.'"
In all, DeMint endorsed five winning candidates, but three came after they won their primary. Had Republicans picked up three more seats, that still would not likely mean a majority, though the outcome in Washington is not yet known.
Despite GOP voters selecting these maverick wild cards, numerous senior Senate GOP aides on Wednesday laid the defeat of some of these candidates squarely at the feet of the junior senator from South Carolina whose Senate Conservatives Fund PAC raised money for the trio and promoted them.
"While Republicans and the Tea Party had a stellar night it's clear that DeMint-style tactics resulted in Republicans losing several key Senate races including Nevada. These Democratic wins mean votes in support of all the things Republicans and the Tea Party oppose. DeMint's tactics backfired," accused one senior Senate GOP leadership aide.
"The reality is that his political acumen is not on par with his self promotion capabilities," said the GOP strategist.
Not surprisingly, DeMint's people see it differently. "DeMint is proud of the strong, conservative candidates he has endorsed," Wesley Denton, the senator's spokesman, told Fox. "The establishment didn't believe that conservatives could win in states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, but the voters proved them wrong. Certainly, a Senate with Senators Rubio, Paul, Toomey, Johnson and Lee is one all Republicans can be proud to stand with."
And one DeMint supporter, who asked not to be named, even accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of wasting money in states that could not be won at the expense of others that could. "It's pretty revealing that on the biggest day for the GOP in decades, thanks to Tea Party energy, the establishment's top priority is to attack conservative grassroots voters. And if Washington and Colorado turn out to be losses, the NRSC has a lot of explaining to do for wasting $8 million on a 10-point blowout loss in California, while Rossi and Buck could have been saved in tight races with that money."
NRSC Chairman John Cornyn, for his part, sang a different tune to reporters Wednesday, "I for one am not angry. My heart is full of gratitude and appreciation." The Texas Republican defended his group's spending in California and Colorado, though, and said, "Any suggestion that any individual senator...had any sort of Midas touch is overstating it in the extreme."
In all, Senate Republicans will welcome 13 new members to Washington when the new Congress starts in early January (one, Mark Kirk of Illinois, will start in lame duck). It remains to be seen what the conference will do with all of the high-intensity, independent personalities heading to town and with DeMint who is waiting with open arms, but one thing is clear: it's not likely the finger-pointing will bother the upstart senator. He actually often delights in jabbing his finger in the eye of his party, playing the role of the chief antagonist and guardian of the taxpayers' money.
Case in point, in a highly confrontational column DeMint penned Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, the senator warns his new conservative colleagues, "Many of the people who will be welcoming the new class of Senate conservatives to Washington never wanted you here in the first place. The establishment is much more likely to try to buy off your votes than to buy into your limited-government philosophy...Don't let them. Co-option is coercion...Someone can't be bribed if they aren't for sale."
Ironically, despite all of the infighting, it seems the Republicans' agenda is basically the same: cut spending, the deficit, and taxes. The one area where land mines lie ahead, of course: earmarks, but that's a fight for another day.
It remains to be seen what this new crop of conservatives coming to Washington will do, but as Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is fond of saying to new members, "Welcome to Washington - a place of 100 big egos and 200 sharp elbows."
On Wednesday, they were a little sharper than usual.