Key GOP Senator Building a Coalition From Outside In?

For the sixth time this year, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, has reached into a state and plucked out a virtually unknown candidate as his horse in this Fall’s midterm race, a candidate not endorsed by the national party.

“We need some fresh faces in Washington, and Marlin Stutzman in one of best I've seen,” DeMint told Fox Monday, as he pronounced his endorsement in the Indiana Senate race, putting him at odds with the national GOP leadership’s chosen candidate, former Sen. Dan Coats.

“There’s only two weeks till the primary.  I know he’s an underdog, but it doesn’t take a lot of money to get the names out, and I think the grassroots have gravitated to him,” DeMint said, as he hopes to bring a much-need spotlight and cash infusion to the little known 33-year old state senator who has, to date, raised a lackluster $125,000, with just $50,000 cash on hand as of March 31.

“Endorsements like this can end up lighting a match under conservatives to go in another direction, aka, ‘The Marco Rubio Effect,’” said one GOP strategist. “In an eight way primary, any endorsement matters and could push Stutzman past others like Hostettler and Coats."

The DeMint endorsement comes on the heels of one made Monday by David Keene of the American Conservative Union

DeMint’s political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), had by early evening raised nearly $36,000 for Stutzman (track the progress here), something the senator calls “a money bomb.” And SCF has raised a whopping $622,910 to date for its bevy of candidates.
DeMint, early on, endorsed Marco Rubio in Florida, and the former State House speaker is now leading the race.  Same goes for Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania where the former congressman rallied conservatives to such an extent that he pushed incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, to switch parties so that he would not lose the GOP primary.  Ken Buck in Colorado, Chuck DeVore in California, and Michael Williams in Texas all received the nod from DeMint, though in Texas, incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, announced recently she would not be retiring this year.

But not all DeMint endorsements, though he has been called a “kingmaker” by some, result in the success of Rubio and Toomey.  In California, DeVore is not fairing as well as some expected.

And conservatives do appear to be at odds in the Hoozier state, which could be problematic for Stutzman, as the pool of votes could be significantly diluted. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson has gone for Coats, and conservative firebrand Rep. Ron Paul of Texas recently endorsed his former colleague, Hostettler, who has been courting the Tea Party movement for its support.

As for DeMint, Senate watchers have long noted the first term senator’s ambition to be GOP leader, though some strategists believe the senator could have an even higher aim.

“Most folks are trying to puzzle out whether these endorsements are to try to help him move up the Senate ladder, or set himself up for a future Presidential run—or both!” one senior Republican strategist speculated to Fox.  “My guess is he himself doesn’t quite know, yet.  Whatever the reason, the logic of what he started with his PAC compels him to repeatedly hop into primaries on behalf of the more conservative candidate, which will always create friction with party types in D.C., because they look to what they see as the practicalities of who might be electable, not just the principles a candidate espouses. “

DeMint has caused a good deal of friction from some past legislative battles within the GOP conference, but the endorsements this campaign season have particularly rankled many in leadership, prompting one GOP strategist to observe that perhaps DeMint is trying to form his own coalition from the outside in.

"He's looking to bring like-minded friends into the Senate, because he is at odds with most of his Republican colleagues. No one wants to sit with him at the lunch table."

DeMint has made no apologies about causing the friction.  On the contrary, the unassuming senator has said that divisive primaries can be good for the party.

Meanwhile, Democrats are loving the fight, as they prepare to settle, without a fight, on Rep. Brad Ellsworth to replace retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat.

“The more they tear themselves apart, the better chance we stand of keeping this seat in our column,” said one senior Democratic strategist involved in Indiana politics.