Washington – For all his success in helping elect ultraconservatives to the Senate, Sen. Jim DeMint now must face the difficult consequences of one spectacular, all but certain failure.
Even as DeMint says he would welcome fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski back to the Senate, the South Carolinian is still urging conservative activists around the country to donate money to replace the Alaskan incumbent with tea party favorite Joe Miller.
DeMint, who raised $5.6 million for ultraconservative GOP candidates this year, has attached a personal appeal letter to a CONTRIBUTE banner and a photo of Miller at the top of www.senateconservatives.com , the Web site of his Senate Conservatives Fund.
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“Joe Miller can win this race, but he’s up against a well-financed legal team that is working for Lisa Murkowski,” DeMint writes. “They will be fighting to bend the law in Alaska, which requires write-in ballots to accurately state the candidate’s name.”
Before a federal judge Friday temporarily froze the final outcome, Murkowski appeared to have won a historic write-in campaign against Miller in the Nov. 2 general election, overcoming DeMint’s contribution of more than $627,000 to Miller.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline suspended Murkowski’s certification as winner provided that Miller demands a recount in state court by Monday, a step he was prepared to take despite the long odds of overtaking Murkowski’s lead of about 10,400 votes. Even if the court were to throw out the 8,153 Murkowski ballots that Miller has challenged, he’d still be behind by 2,247 votes.
Miller won Alaska’s Aug. 25 Senate Republican primary, prompting Murkowski to launch her write-in effort – and setting off a bitter, drawn-out exchange of actions and words with DeMint that may not end any time soon.
Murkowski has responded coolly to DeMint’s recent peace signals.
“He has suggested that he’s got some making up to do,” Murkowski told CNN on Nov. 12. “I’ll let him make the first move.”
Beyond its political intrigue, the DeMint-Murkowski tussle reveals the deeper ideological struggle within the Republican Party between hard-liners unwilling to bend their principles and moderates who say governing requires compromise.
DeMint’s badly damaged relationship with Murkowski also shows the tightrope he’s treading as he tries to remake the Senate in his ultraconservative image from inside the august chamber while backing anti-establishment rabble-rousers on the outside.
While Miller still pursued a recount, Washington insiders regarded Murkowski’s victory as a done deal.
“Murkowski returns to the Senate in an open war with DeMint and a few of his conservative GOP allies,” wrote Dan Friedman, a National Journal analyst.
Murkowski delivered another salvo Tuesday when she and Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma were the only two Republican senators to oppose a two-year moratorium on spending earmarks — which DeMint has made his signature issue since first targeting them almost four years ago.
“I do not believe that an earmark moratorium does anything more than send a message,” Murkowski told Politico, a widely read newspaper and blog on Capitol Hill.
“It does not reduce the level of spending,” she said. “It doesn’t reduce our deficit. I think this is an effort to make people feel better about the Congress.”
Republicans regained control of the House in the Nov. 2 elections while narrowing, but not eliminating, Democrats’ Senate majority.
In response to Murkowski’s post-primary, write-in campaign against Miller, DeMint led a failed effort in September to remove her as senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a vitally important post for oil-rich Alaska.
When most of his Senate Republican peers sided with Murkowski and preserved her position, DeMint fired off an angry email to conservative activists.
“It was bad enough to watch my colleagues work to support her (against Miller) in the primary after she had built a record of betraying conservative principles,” DeMint wrote.
“But watching them back her after she left the party and launched a campaign against the Republican nominee (Miller) was more than I could bear,” he said.
Part of the $626,909 that DeMint contributed to Miller through Oct. 31 paid for a hard-hitting ad against Murkowski that portrayed her as being soft on abortion.
Murkowski’s exit from the GOP to run as an independent write-in candidate Nov. 2 proved temporary. With her victory in sight, she intends to return to the party and represent Alaska as a Republican senator.
DeMint said near midnight on Election Day that he and Murkowski would “have some making up to do,” and he appeared to take a first step Nov. 15 by claiming he would “congratulate her and welcome her back” to the Senate.
Yet for 20 days since the election, DeMint has raised money for Miller on his Senate Conservatives Fund.
Murkowski blames DeMint for having cost Republicans control of the Senate by bankrolling ultraconservatives who lost general election contests that more moderate GOP candidates could have won.
“I think some of the Republicans in the Congress feel pretty strongly that he and his actions potentially cost us the majority by encouraging candidates that ended up not being electable,” Murkowski told Politico on Nov 16.
Asked whether DeMint is more interested in helping their party or pursuing his own political agenda, Murkowski responded: “I think he’s out for his own initiative.”
Most of the candidates DeMint supported won their GOP primaries, but he had a mixed record in the general election.
Five incoming senators who DeMint funded, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, will increase his clout as a conservative kingmaker with a rising national profile among activists.
But five DeMint-backed candidates lost on Election Day, several of them in states that Republicans might have won with more moderate office-seekers.
Some conservative analysts have cited as examples DeMint’s support for losing candidates Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado and Sharron Angle in Nevada.
Murkowski, though, was the first sitting GOP senator to say publicly that DeMint may have cost Republicans the Senate majority.
“I think he has made people uncomfortable,” she said. “I think that he has kind of rattled the cages. Whether that advances to a full-on civil war, I don’t know.”
DeMint has said he considered Murkowski a friend, but he added that their relationship matters far less than his drive to cut spending, reduce the deficit and expansion of the federal government.
“I respect the friendship component of this, but our country is much more relationship than our friendships here,” DeMint said.