By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jim DeMint has revived his push to elect more tea-party conservatives to the Senate, which could widen the rift between the South Carolina Republican and the GOP establishment in the 2012 election.
Just as he did in 2010, DeMint is looking to play the role of tea-party kingmaker. Independent of the Republican Party, he's raising hefty sums for his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
The PAC raised $500,000 this past September and had $1.89 million as of Sept. 30, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The PAC raised $9 million for the 2010 elections, more than any other leadership PAC, FEC filings show. Such PACs are set up by members of Congress to raise money for other candidates.
The Senate Conservatives Fund's mission is to support conservatives whom DeMint views as ideologically pure -- who support free-market principles, oppose tax increases, favor shrinking the federal government and support increasing political power at the state and local levels.
"Sen. DeMint's not just looking to give someone his endorsement," said Matt Hoskins, a longtime DeMint aide who is the PAC's director. "He wants to work hard and raise money for them and help them get their message out and win the campaign. What he's looking to do through the Senate Conservatives Fund is to rally, unite and help lead grassroots conservatives all over the country and to work with them to focus on these standout candidates."
The PAC may support up to 10 candidates this cycle, Hoskins said. So far, it has made endorsements in the Ohio and Texas Senate races.
In Ohio, DeMint's choice is state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who's seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In Texas, he has endorsed former state Attorney General Ted Cruz to take on the Democratic candidate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Cruz trails Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP primary race.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has given Mandel $256,000 and Cruz $284,000, Hoskins said. The PAC expects to raise at least $500,000 for each.
Each endorsed candidate receives $10,000 directly from the PAC, the maximum contribution allowed per election cycle under federal law.
The Senate Conservatives Fund also spends thousands of dollars in "independent expenditures" for brochures, direct mail, website development and other services benefiting candidates. Hoskins said such expenditures total $71,000 for Mandel and $80,000 for Cruz so far.
The PAC's website also serves as a significant conduit of campaign cash. Visitors to the site can donate directly to candidates with a few mouse clicks. DeMint often makes special fundraising pitches on behalf of specific candidates.
Such appeals were instrumental in helping Mandel raise $175,000 through the Senate Conservatives Fund website, according to Hoskins. Site visitors have donated $193,000 to Cruz, he said.
Tea-party activists challenging mainstream GOP candidates welcome DeMint's support. His endorsement as a powerful conservative gives instant respectability to little-known challengers, analysts say. Money from the Senate Conservatives Fund can also give a struggling campaign an overnight boost.
"Sen. DeMint is someone who has gained enormous credibility among the grassroots, among tea-party leaders, among conservative activists," said Cruz, who first met with DeMint a year ago and won his endorsement in July. "The grassroots understand that Sen. DeMint does not endorse a candidate unless that candidate is a strong conservative willing to stand up and fight."
Mandel said that on the campaign trail, he touts DeMint's endorsement and the help he gets from the Senate Conservatives Fund.
"Their support has been very helpful in building our war chest and continuing to develop a following of grassroots conservatives throughout Ohio and America," Mandel said. "When we're sending out emails or I speak to groups, I oftentimes mention the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund. I think people look to Sen. DeMint as a leader."
But DeMint's support could be a mixed blessing, especially in moderate states like Ohio, said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist.
It might help Mandel in the GOP primary, but "it's less clear what effect it would have in the general election," he said. "It could help energize Republican voters, tea-party voters, but it might also help mobilize labor union members and liberals."
During the 2010 elections, DeMint helped tea-party conservatives like Kentucky's Rand Paul, Utah's Mike Lee, Florida's Marco Rubio, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey beat mainstream GOP candidates in the primary and Democrats in the general election.
But eight other candidates DeMint supported through his PAC -- notably Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada -- lost in the November elections after knocking off GOP primary opponents. Those losses kept Republicans from taking control of the Senate.
By working to increase the number of "true" conservatives in the Senate, DeMint is contributing to partisan gridlock, former Delaware GOP Rep. Mike Castle said.
Castle was defeated by O'Donnell in Delaware's GOP Senate primary before O'Donnell lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election. Before his primary loss, Castle seemed an easy bet to defeat Coons.
"The kinds of candidates he supports -- if they are able to get elected -- are probably going to be bearers of the gridlock," Castle said. "They're coming from an ideological point of view. They don't come from the concept of working together. The word compromise is a foreign word."
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau