Battle of New Orleans
At the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, where the stars were supposed to be the likes of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the real stars were the behind-the-scenes players attempting to build momentum for their candidates leading into the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
While Mitt Romney had his full organization out front trying to buy up the straw poll event, operatives for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were all actively working the main floor event and holding meetings with interested groups.
The big target: fundraisers and bundlers from the Bush 2004 and McCain 2008 presidential campaigns. Perhaps under the radar — a political consultant claiming to represent former Utah governor and current Obama administration ambassador to China Jon Huntsman quietly encouraging Bush donors to “keep their powder dry” until Huntsman had a chance to consider his viability as a presidential candidate.
Also in play: several political consultants claiming ties to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke at the event.
Barbour hasn’t decided on his potential run for the presidency in 2012, though staff members say that his administration has taken on the feel of one that is focused on other things.
Another candidate who fell flat in the Big Easy? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, some advisers say, doesn’t believe the Tea Party movement is a good thing for the Republican Party.
Up River With DeMint
Sen. Jim DeMint has done more than just about any other elected official in Washington, except perhaps President Barack Obama, to improve the political fortunes of conservative Republicans, particularly with his endorsement of state and federal candidates.
He was an early adopter of Florida’s Marco Rubio, and was influential in driving conservatives away from established incumbents, like Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, and candidates, like Indiana’s former Sen. Dan Coats and former Interior secretary and Colorado senate candidate Gale Norton.
“In some cases [DeMint] has probably pushed some of these candidates further to the right than they are comfortable with, but more squarely where they need to be if they succeed in the primaries,” says a Washington-based consultant. “No one would accuse Gale Norton of being a conservative, but the ads she has been running were far more aggressive than anything you would have expected from her. I think DeMint’s shadow in all these races has had an impact.”
So the question follows: beyond helping the movement, why is DeMint injecting himself into these races and sometimes poking colleagues in the eye? Some believe DeMint’s endgame is the eventual play for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s job or at the least creating a conservative caucus in the Senate that, should Republicans win back the body, would have the votes to push policies and politics toward conservative principles.
“If nothing else, Jim DeMint has shown he’s more about principle than whipping the votes for a compromise piece of legislation with Democrats,” says a Senate Republican leadership aide. “He’s supporting men and women who hold his view and who have indicated they will fight for conservative principles. If he has seven or eight of those types lined up, and Republicans hold a narrow majority, those votes become increasingly important.”
Ironically, some say DeMint is using a strategy similar to the one set up by senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham five years ago, when they created a loose-knit “Gang of 14” to block Sen. Bill Frist from using the “nuclear option” to push through Bush administration federal court nominees.
“The difference,” says another Senate leadership aide, “is that DeMint wouldn’t be selling conservatives down the river.”