On Saturday, Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina conservative who thus far has had a winning season of 7-2 in Senate GOP endorsements, made an 11th-hour decision to back Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (in addition to Ovide Lamontagne in New Hampshire) ahead of Tuesday’s primary. O’Donnell, a Tea Party darling, is taking on Rep. Mike Castle for the GOP nomination for Joe Biden’s old seat. At least one poll over the weekend shows O’Donnell eking out a small lead over Castle.
Castle is a well-known moderate and, until late last week, a presumed shoe-in for the GOP nomination. He’s also got the backing of the senior Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham.
Graham and DeMint have often found themselves on opposite sides of the primary field this cycle, and in many ways the two represent the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. Thus far in races where they’ve endorsed opposing Senate GOP candidates, DeMint and Graham are tied 2-2. DeMint’s Tea Party candidates won in Colorado and Florida (Graham back Charlie Crist early on but switched his endorsement to Marco Rubio when Crist left the Republican Party to run as an Independent) and Graham’s candidates won in Indiana and California. Which makes Delaware the tiebreaker.
The dichotomy is striking. Graham strives to grow the party’s center. From my interview with Graham last December:
Jim [DeMint], his concerns for the party, I share many of them. We have lost our way. And I understand what he’s trying to do with respect to more conservative beliefs. But I want to grow the party. And I don’t think conservatism and coalition building are mutually exclusive. I don’t think conservatism and working across the aisle are mutually exclusive
So there has to be a place in the Republican Party for the Tea Party movement and for people like Olympia Snowe. Susan Collins and Mike Castle. My view about building this party is to coalition build. That people who believe with you 70% of the time are not your enemy, they’re your friend.
The people that are calling folks RINOs would represent the do-do bird wing of the party. The do-dos are extinct. Was Ronald Reagan a RINO?
Meanwhile, DeMint is looking to grow the Party’s right flank. From my interview with DeMint in May, where he predicted at least five of his Senate candidates will win in November:
We need a Republican Party that’s true to what it says and that is: we’re for a limited government, a good low tax, pro-business environment so that jobs can be created in the private sector. My agenda is to try and devolve some of the federal functions back to the states to try to streamline the federal government so we defend out country and our borders and keep out promises to our seniors because they’ve paid for Social Security and Medicare. But we can’t run schools and health care and control the whole financial sector; we can’t do that from Washington. So we’re really looking for people with some common sense and maybe some people who’ve had a business sheet in front of them before and realize that we’re bankrupt we’ve got to turn it around.
DeMint told me in a May that, although he endorsed Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania over incumbent (and then-Republican) Arlen Specter, he would never consider endorsing a primary opponent against the more moderate Graham. Although Graham’s centrist tendencies often get him into trouble with conservatives at home, both Demint and Graham are incredibly popular in South Carolina. Graham won reelection in 2008 with 58% of the vote and DeMint, who is up for reelection this year, is ahead in polls by 20 points.