On Tuesday, the South Carolina Republican will endorse Rubio, a 38-year-old former state House speaker, bucking the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s endorsement of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate who has periodically found himself at odds with right-wing elements of his party. National Republicans argue that the popular Crist is best positioned to ensure the critical seat stays in GOP hands at a time when Democrats have a stranglehold on power in Washington.
The move is not out of character for DeMint, who often finds himself at odds with GOP leaders over thorny political issues. But DeMint has a significant grass-roots conservative following, and the fight speaks to the larger struggle over the GOP’s tent: Should it be big enough to include more moderate candidates who have a better chance of winning but stray from the party’s principles? Or should it be mainly limited to bedrock conservatives who would help the party return to its socially conservative and limited government roots?
DeMint firmly believes in the latter. A leader of the conservative Senate Steering Committee, DeMint has started a political action committee — called the Senate Conservatives Fund — designed to prop up the candidacies of Senate incumbents and wannabes who adhere to conservative principles. So far, DeMint has backed former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania (he planned to do so even before the moderate Sen. Arlen Specter became a Democrat) and the staunch conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is up for a second term in November 2010.
This cycle, DeMint plans to take a different tack with his Senate Conservatives Fund; instead of simply making donations to his preferred candidate, he plans to ask his 20,000 supporters to help raise the maximum allowable limit for the endorsed candidates — a process known as “bundling.” A person familiar with the PAC said that DeMint is expected to endorse between three and five candidates this cycle.
Still, Republicans backing Crist were not worried about the impact of DeMint’s endorsement.
“It’s hard to see how this helps Rubio in a broad sense,” said an aide to a Senate Republican who supports Crist. “When you have all the Senate GOP leaders standing behind Crist, and he has Jim DeMint, it only reinforces this idea that this isn’t a serious primary. He’s only appealing to the far right of the party, and that’s reflected in low poll numbers.”
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Added Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who supports Crist: “The numbers speak for themselves.”
In addition to his own-ramped up fundraising, Crist is holding a commanding advantage over Rubio in the polls. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found that 54 percent of primary voters support Crist, with 23 percent backing Rubio in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. The poll showed that Crist had 60 percent approval ratings, but 73 percent did not know enough about Rubio to form an opinion.
And that will be the mission of conservatives over the next year before the August 2010 primary: Help Rubio raise money and name identity in order to compete against the better-known and better-funded Crist. He’s already getting help in the conservative blogosphere.
When the NRSC gave the moderate Crist its coveted endorsement last month, the Red State blog called on activists to stop donating to the NRSC and even set up a Facebook page with more than 1,500 supporters, pledging “no money, no support, no aid and no help at all to the efforts of the NRSC.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, who endorsed Crist, downplayed the impact of any endorsement and said, “I think we’d all have our right to say who we’re for, and [conservative activists] have a right to say who they’re for, and the voters of Florida can decide who their senator will be.”