WASHINGTON — A tea party upstart's shocking election win in Delaware accelerated Sen. Jim DeMint's ascent, left him as the nation's most powerful hard-line conservative politician outside of Sarah Palin, but exposed the South Carolina Republican to attacks that he'd helped destroy his party's chances of regaining Senate control.
Charles Krauthammer, an influential syndicated conservative commentator, spared no punches in criticizing DeMint and Palin for having helped political neophyte Christine O'Donnell defeat nine-term Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Senate GOP primary Tuesday.
Krauthammer branded as "reckless and irresponsible" the endorsement of O'Donnell by Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and DeMint, and its galvanizing effect on tea party stalwarts.
Castle, endorsed by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, was the handpicked choice of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to win the prized Delaware seat that had been long held by Vice President Joe Biden.
"Senate Republicans are now even more embroiled in an intraparty civil war in which DeMint has been the lead rebel," reported Politico, a widely read Capital Hill newspaper and blog.
CNN commentator Gloria Borger called the GOP infighting "fratricide of the highest order."
As analysts across the political spectrum moved Delaware from a possible Senate GOP pickup in November to a near-certain Republican loss, DeMint defiantly predicted another surprise.
"I really think she's got a good chance of winning," DeMint told McClatchy. "Independent voters, who represent about a third of Delaware's voters, are looking for somebody who's not tied in with any party establishment. The best pick on that list is going to be Christine."
But even if an O'Donnell loss to Democrat Chris Coons costs the Republicans a Senate majority -- they need to pick up 10 seats -- don't expect DeMint to say he's sorry.
"The priority is not first the majority," DeMint said. "We had a big majority with 55 Republican senators. We had a big House majority. We had Bush in the White House. We spent too much, borrowed too much, expanded the government too much -- and they [the voters] threw us out."
It's those sorts of hard-hitting, unapologetic salvos that have made DeMint a hero among many conservative activists across the country and helped his Senate leadership PAC raise $5.5 million -- a staggering sum for a freshman senator.
"Perhaps no Republican politician has seen his star rise higher in the past two years than South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint," Ray Gustini wrote online Friday for The Atlantic magazine.
DeMint is paying no attention to -- and spending no money on -- his own re-election campaign. He's expected to sail to victory over Democrat Alvin Greene.
Within 48 hours of O'Donnell's primary win, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund collected $177,000 for her.
That windfall increased to $3.2 million the amount DeMint has contributed to a dozen hardcore conservative Senate candidates in the last year.
The outcomes Tuesday in Delaware, Wisconsin (where DeMint endorsed winner Ron Johnson) and New Hampshire (where he backed loser Ovide Lamontagne) left DeMint with an 8-3 record this Senate Republican primary season.
Most of the eight winning candidates DeMint endorsed and funded started off as long-shot underdogs taking on GOP powerhouse foes with more money and more connections.
Among the winners are former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck in Colorado and Salt Lake City lawyer Mike Lee in Utah.
"Sen. Jim DeMint is now one of the most powerful forces in the Republican Party," wrote National Review blogger Daniel Foster.
Three of DeMint's endorsed candidates -- Rubio, Buck and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania -- are ahead in general election polls, while another three are running even.
Only O'Donnell and Ron Johnson, trailing incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington state, now face significantly uphill battles in November.
At a fundraiser for Murray last month, Obama -- who DeMint has accused of leading the nation to socialism -- mocked the South Carolinian's habit of scolding his colleagues in speeches on the Senate floor.
"I'm always sympathetic to Patty because she was always trying to catch the plane back home, and when the votes went late, she'd be looking at her watch and thinking, 'Well, that [plane] just left, and there's one more, and I've got 10 minutes, and Jim DeMint is talking,'" Obama said to roars of laughter from Democrats.
DeMint's rapidly rising profile prompts persistent published reports that he's gunning for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's post -- reports he just as persistently denies.
"I fully support Mitch McConnell and our entire leadership team, and I am looking forward to working with them," DeMint said.
DeMint also rejects the growing calls that he run for president in 2012.
"I'm not looking past 2010 right now," DeMint said. "I have no plans to run for president."
Told that his denial of White House aspirations sounded like a Shermanesque stance that didn't completely shut the door, DeMint chuckled.
"I'm getting pretty good at this," he said.