Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina speaks to the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Sept. 17, in Washington.

Sen. Jim DeMint and 'tea party': architects of a GOP makeover?

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has embraced the tea party movement more enthusiastically than most of his GOP congressional colleagues. Critics say he's hurting more than he's helping.

Is Jim DeMint killing his party, or is he getting it back on track?

Like Sarah Palin, the senator from South Carolina has been a major factor in Republican primaries this year, lending his support to upstart “tea party” candidates taking on the establishment. Many of those candidates – from Joe Miller in Alaska to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware – have succeeded in winning the GOP nomination.

But there's a big difference, too. Senator DeMint, unlike Ms. Palin, is himself part of the establishment, the highest-ranking politician associated with the tea party, having served in Washington for 10 years. His split with most of his congressional colleagues has been making waves within the party.

IN PICTURES: Tea parties

As DeMint sees it, he’s just helping the party survive.

On Sunday, he told CNN’s “State of the Union” that if the GOP takes control in November and doesn’t live up to the conservative principles it has espoused, then “the Republican Party’s dead.”

DeMint has raised $3.3 million – via his Senate Conservatives Fund – for tea party candidates, including Mr. Miller, Ms. O’Donnell, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Marco Rubio in Florida.

The Republican establishment has embraced these primary victors, though some more warmly than others. Even so, some party regulars in Washington are not happy with the direction DeMint is trying to move the Grand Ole Party.

He bucked his colleagues by supporting O’Donnell – in the process threatening the GOP’s chances to take over the Senate in November, given O’Donnell’s uphill battle in a general election.

The senior senator from his home state, Lindsey Graham, questioned that tactic, telling the Associated Press that “to really be in charge up here matters…. If you want to repeal Obamacare, you gotta have the votes."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, whom DeMint has called a "big-tent hypocrite" and who plans to run as a write-in candidate against Miller, says DeMint is undermining his fellow Republicans.

But DeMint, who joined fellow social conservatives at the Values Voter Summit last week, is unapologetic.

“Some of my establishment friends are not really happy with me,” he told a cheering audience at the conference. "Folks, instead of diminishing our party, there's been one upset after another all over the country. ... This is no longer voting for the 'least worst' on the ballot.”

IN PICTURES: Tea parties

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