COLUMBIA, S.C. — The most sought-after endorsement in South Carolina Republican politics isn’t coming.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Monday that he won’t endorse a candidate in the GOP presidential race, leading some to wonder if DeMint, who has played the role of a conservative kingmaker, is noncommittal about his party’s presidential candidates.
DeMint said he is going to direct his energy and considerable fundraising muscle to helping elect more right-wing candidates to the Senate.
“We’ve got some great conservative leaders in the Republican (White House) primary, and they’d all be much better than President (Barack) Obama,” DeMint told McClatchy Newspapers.
DeMint, who was overwhelmingly elected to a second term a year ago, said it’s just as important for him to help Republicans regain a majority in the Senate as it is for him to support any of several stellar presidential aspirants.
“The Senate is just as critical to the future of our nation, and we need more leaders like Mike Lee and Rand Paul who will fight the big spenders in both nations,” he said.
Lee of Utah and Paul of Kentucky were among the five new Republican senators DeMint helped elect a year ago, along with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund distributed more than $7 million to 13 candidates, eight of whom won Senate Republican primaries.
DeMint-backed candidates helped the GOP increase their seats in the Senate from 43 to 47 in the current congressional session.
But while his success gave him added clout, some conservative commentators blamed DeMint and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for costing their party a Senate majority by backing hard-line candidates who could win primaries but failed in general elections in November 2010.
DeMint’s decision not to endorse a presidential candidate could make more valuable the endorsements of a younger generation of South Carolina “tea party” favorites, including Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican from Lexington, and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican.
Both, elected last year, have financial ties to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Haley was elected with the help of almost $40,000 in contributions from Romney’s political action committees. Scott received $4,500 from Romney committees.
Haley, who also endorsed Romney in 2008, has said she will endorse a GOP candidate in late December. The South Carolina primary is Jan. 21.
Scott is hosting a series of “first in the South” presidential town hall meetings where the presidential candidates take questions from South Carolinians. He has said he will decide whether to endorse a candidate when that series wraps up.
DeMint’s decision not to endorse a Republican candidate is a blow to Romney, who DeMint endorsed in 2008. Despite that endorsement, Romney finished a disappointing fourth in that year’s South Carolina GOP primary.
Sources close to DeMint said it was unlikely that DeMint, who has risen to national prominence since 2008, would endorse Romney a second time, citing Romney’s moves to the political center.
For example, Romney has expressed concern about global warming, widely ridiculed by the right wing of the GOP, and he criticized his fellow Republican presidential rival Rick Perry for likening Social Security to a Ponzi scheme.
DeMint himself has blasted Social Security and pushed for partially privatizing the system, letting workers open personal savings account.
Perhaps more newsworthy than DeMint’s shunning of Romney is the fact that the senator found no other candidate to endorse.
“It’s surprising because he’s always been one to step out there and help candidates he believed in,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who co-authored a book with DeMint in 2008.
“It sounds to me like he’s just not convinced on any of the candidates. Somehow he hasn’t been moved by any of them,” said Woodard.
DeMint’s decision to not endorse is a sharp turnaround for the leader of the GOP’s most conservative wing.
As recently as September, DeMint said he planned to endorse a candidate. Holding out that prospect, DeMint attracted a half-dozen Republican hopefuls to a Labor Day presidential forum in Columbia, where DeMint, along with two like-minded conservatives, grilled the candidates before a live audience.
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