Senate Republican insiders are privately fuming at Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Tea Party Express, and others who they believe cost them Senate seats in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado by backing candidates they regard as subpar. The barely submerged intra-party spat underscores one of the huge management challenges facing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the next Congress.
DeMint, in an interview with National Journal Wednesday, claimed sweeping success for the conservative candidates he backed. He blamed prominent tea party losses in part on his party’s failure to give candidates enough help.
GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware “might have had a shot,” if she had not been “vilified” by some Republicans, DeMint said, in what may have been a reference to comments by Karl Rove, an advisor in the George W. Bush administration, though he declined to fault Rove by name. He also criticized the failure of Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., to endorse O’Donnell after she beat him in the GOP primary.
DeMint is set to challenge GOP leaders by seeking a GOP conference vote to ban earmarks, which he said he expects will cause tension with leadership, but he also praised top Senate Republicans.
“We’ve got a really good leadership team in the Senate,” DeMint said. He said he has no interest in running for a leadership job, or for president, and is happy as an informal conservative leader backing insurgent conservative candidates.
“I think I found my role,” DeMint said.
Republican aides defending their party’s performance on the Senate side last night noted that GOP candidates selected by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and GOP leadership won in Ohio, New Hampshire, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisonsin, and Illinois. With the exception of GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who won President Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois, they all won by big margins and with relatively small spending by the NRSC, the aides said.
“In contrast, the DeMint/Tea Party Express-backed candidates lost big in Nevada and Delaware, effectively throwing away two Senate seats,” said one GOP Senate aide who asked for anonymity to discuss an intra-party dispute. Many Republicans argue that onetime Nevada GOP frontrunner Sue Lowden would have beaten Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Castle would have easily beat the eventual Delaware winner, Democrat Chris Coons.
Another potential loss that has GOP insiders angry came today in Colorado race, where Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet declared victory over tea party-backed Ken Buck is trailing .
The GOP aide said that if NRSC-backed, former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, who Buck beat in the primary, had been the GOP nominee, “We would have had [Colorado] in the bag.”
DeMint also backed Indiana state legislator Marlin Stutzman, who yesterday prevailed in an open-seat House race, against former Sen. Dan Coats in the GOP primary for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, which Coats won. DeMint also backed Ovide Lamontagne in the GOP primary against former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who easily defeated Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in New Hampshire's Senate race.
“Can you only imagine if [Stutzman and Lamontagne] had won those primaries?” the aide asked.
DeMint can cite wins in Kentucky by Rand Paul, in Florida by Marco Rubio, and, in a pickup, by Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, all of whom he backed early. DeMint said tea party backing and his support ultimately helped many GOP Senate candidates prevail.
"You've got to take the good with the bad," he said.
DeMint said he expects an expanded group of convervative Republicans to wield more sway in the next Congress.
“Whether you call it the Steering Committee or the Tea Party Caucus, we’ve got a bigger group,” he said.
Saying they ran as conservatives and “know the mood of the country,” DeMint called Ayotte, Portman, and Kirk part of the expanded conservative wing of the Senate GOP.
That view contrasts with recent statements by McConnell and GOP leadership aides. They have cited the same electees as relative moderates to argue that the Senate Republican Conference will grow larger but not more conservative.
Republicans have also taken aim at the California-based Tea Party Express, which helped candidates who have lost or look likely to lose in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, and Alaska, but who defeated NRSC-backed candidates in those states' primaries.
A Tea Party Express spokesman last night questioned if any Republican could have won in Nevada.
“Despite that race though, tonight has been a series of amazing victories for the tea party movement and conservatives all across the U.S.,” the spokesman said. “We fired [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [of California], one of our biggest targets since the movement began....The Tea Party movement has brought that about.”
Kathy Kiely and Lindsey Boerma contributed contributed to this article.