Probably the last person Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) wanted to run into, as he conducted a triumphant round of TV interviews in the Russell Senate Office Building on Wednesday, was the man he did encounter: Sen. John Cornyn, the Texan who chairs the Republican National Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"You're friends, right?" quipped Fox News Capitol Hill producer Trish Turner, whose camera crew captured the moment. "You're not going to beat him up or anything, right?" she asked Cornyn.
DeMint playfully raised his hand to his jaw, as if he had just been socked a good one by the taller, beefier Texan. It was all - or at least half - in jest, but Cornyn was having none of it. "I told them you and I are like peas in a pod," he said earnestly, buttoning his suit jacket and shaking DeMint's hand.
Nervously eyeing the floor, DeMint stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets. "Now that the primary is over," Cornyn assured all present, his back stiffening, "we're all unified." He then patted DeMint on the shoulder, and - with a cursory "Good seeing you," the kind lawmakers reserve for constituents who show up at their offices without an appointment and mumbling about alien abduction - briskly strode off. The entire encounter lasted less than ten seconds.
The awkwardness reflected the extent to which DeMint, a first-term senator with his own political action committee and strong ties to the Tea Party movement, has emerged as a potent counterweight to his party's leadership in the business of choosing winning and losing candidates.
In the 2010 cycle, DeMint has thrown his weight behind 12 candidates for various offices, nine of whom have won. For example, the South Carolinian - who is widely believed to harbor presidential aspirations - backed Marco Rubio, the GOP's Senate nominee in Florida, at a time when the party structure in the Sunshine state was largely unified behind Gov. Charlie Crist, now running as an independent. And DeMint endorsed Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party favorite who on Tuesday scored a victory over Rep. Mike Castle, the GOP establishment's preferred candidate in the Delaware Republican Senate primary.
In all, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund has doled out some $3.6 million this cycle, a figure he hopes to raise to $5 million within the next six weeks. That will begin with DeMint's ambitious effort to drop a $174,000 "money bomb" on the O'Donnell campaign by next week.
"I hope I am a threat to the so-called establishment here in Washington," DeMint told Fox News in an interview Wednesday afternoon. Asked if he has ever gotten pushback from Republicans who may take exception to his self-anointed role as an endorser of candidates, some of whom exist outside the GOP leadership's circle of favorites, DeMint falls back on the old standard: just what he reads in the papers.
"I see press reports of anonymous staff members, cowards, saying things they won't say to me," he says. "But actually, a lot of Republicans here will whisper to me that, you know, ‘Keep up the fight.'" DeMint clearly relishes the role of the Insider Who Is Also An Outsider, saying he represents all Americans who are tired of Republicans "pretending" to be conservatives.
"There's a real American awakening that's not just Republicans," he told Fox News. "Forty percent of Tea Party [members] are Democrats and Independents. And it's really exciting, I think, that they're rising up and throwing out Democrats and Republicans. I think we're going to have a new Congress that speaks for the people after November."
Only Sarah Palin, who boasts no Beltway title, rivals DeMint as an unofficial GOP kingmaker this election year. The former vice presidential nominee has endorsed at least 43 candidates, and racked up an impressive record of 25 winners and 11 losers, with the remainder running unopposed or not yet having faced voters. Unlike DeMint, Palin often tries to focus her endorsements on female candidates, whom the former Alaska governor calls "mama grizzlies."
"Jim DeMint is brilliant," Palin told anchor Jon Scott on Fox News' Happening Now program Wednesday. Like DeMint, however, Palin rejects the kingmaker label and denies seeking the role. "I am not in this for any kind of personal gain or power grab at all. I don't even know how to play those type[s] of games. And I don't have the people, the machine, the whatever-it-takes to be in a position like that. I am thankful that Jim DeMint is so bold and courageous, that he is getting out there and making these endorsements, too. And no competition there at all."
For his part, Senator Cornyn told Fox News on Wednesday that he enjoys "common cause" with Governor Palin and Senator DeMint, especially now that the general election season is upon us. But Cornyn also made wry reference to the Senate as "an institution with 100 large egos and 200 sharp elbows."