ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Senator Jim DeMint could become a conservative star this election season, and it's not because of the time he's putting into his own reelection in South Carolina. This year, some of the most surprising Republican primary victories around the country have been for candidates who got help from DeMint.
From member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, Julie Rose reports.
JULIE ROSE: South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint is trying to get reelected.
Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Nevada): This campaign is about taking back America.
ROSE: Oh, wait. That's not DeMint.
Mr. MARCO RUBIO (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Florida): Hi, I'm Marco Rubio. America is the greatest country in the world.
ROSE: Yeah, that's obviously not DeMint either.
For an incumbent trying to keep his seat, DeMint seems a lot more focused on the campaigns of politicians you just heard: Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rubio in Florida and a half dozen others around the country.
Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): We support only those candidates who believe and will fight to restrain our government, so you and your family can live free, independent and prosperous lives.
ROSE: That is Jim DeMint in a video on the website of his political action committee. The Senate Conservative Fund has already contributed more than $2 million to candidates who meet DeMint's conservative criteria. A spokesman for the fund says they're shooting to raise five million by November.
Meanwhile, DeMint is doing very little of his own campaigning and wouldn't agree to an interview for this story because, well, let's let political scientist Scott Huffmon explains. He's at South Carolina's Winthrop University.
Dr. SCOTT HUFFMON (Department of Political Science, Winthrop University): DeMint feels that he's probably cruising towards reelection. I think most of the country has learned about Alvin Greene, the Democratic nominee for Senate and the controversy that it's caused.
ROSE: Probably an understatement there. Alvin Greene is the 32-year-old unemployed military veteran with no organized campaign, a pending felony charge for obscenity and a knack for giving awkward interviews to the media, like this one a month ago when he promised to end the recession.
Mr. ALVIN GREENE (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, South Carolina): That's what I'll do. That's what I will do, because I have real plans, and my opponent has nothing.
ROSE: Except a 42-point lead over Greene in one recent poll. So Huffmon says DeMint's got time and money to spend on something bigger.
Dr. HUFFMON: This will absolutely make DeMint a powerbroker, a kingmaker within the Republican Party, to the degree that he is successful.
ROSE: Here's the risk: The candidates DeMint is backing fall to the Republican right - more in line with the Tea Party movement. Most ran against chosen heirs of the Republican Party establishment, and DeMint waded right into the primary fray.
So if DeMint's picks lose in November, party establishment types are likely to blame him for pushing unelectable Tea Partiers onto the ballot.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. KEN BUCK (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Colorado): Thank you so much for being here, folks. I just received a call from Jane...
ROSE: Colorado is one of the states where DeMint placed a bet. The Senate Conservatives Fund spent more than $300,000 to land Ken Buck on the victory platform, instead of the candidate favored by Senate Republican leaders. Now, the fund is aggressively soliciting donations for Ken Buck's general election bid, bypassing state and national Republican Party fund-raising efforts.
In essence, draining money from the party's own pockets, says political scientist Scott Huffmon.
Dr. HUFFMON: That, again, is setting up potential conflict between the establishment and Jim DeMint.
Mr. DICK WADHAMS (Chairman, Republican Party, Colorado): No, that is not a conflict with us at all.
ROSE: And that's Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.
Mr. WADHAMS: More importantly, I think Senator DeMint is going to be electing some great U.S. senators across the country - helping to elect some great senators across the country.
ROSE: And boosting his own profile too?
Mr. WADHAMS: I assume so, and that's fine with me.
ROSE: A spokesman for Jim DeMint says the senator didn't come to Washington to make friends. But his efforts to get conservative darlings elected could give him a built-in class of freshmen senators who owe him big. And when you're a kingmaker, who needs friends?
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.
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