COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s leading tea party power player could be about to pick up an infusion of new influence.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville, announced plans Monday to spin off a fund he’s used to back insurgent GOP Senate candidates into a super political action committee — known as a “super PAC.”
The move means the new group, Senate Conservatives Action, will be able to accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals and spend at will.
“It’s certainly going to raise the profile of candidates aligned with him and could lead to candidates angling for that money,” said Brent Nelsen, a Furman University political science professor.
The super PAC, which will not technically be affiliated with DeMint in order to comply with federal regulations, will nonetheless be run by a longtime staffer.
And DeMint can advise it. His mission?
No less than reshaping the Republican Party with candidates who share his strain of hard-core conservatism.
“He believes he’s saving the United States,” Nelsen said.
The new group is an offshoot of DeMint’s similarly named Senate Conservatives Fund, a more traditional leadership fundraising operation limited to donations of $5,000 or less.
The group has raised more than $17 million since 2010.
The super PAC’s launch was made possible by a landmark two-year-old Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the new groups and emergence of new campaign finance rules.
In accordance with those rules, DeMint said Monday that he’s cut official ties with SCF, which frees up the group to form a super PAC.
“This is almost a kind of natural progression,” said Michael Bitzer, a longtime observer of S.C. politics and a political scientist at Catawba College.
He called DeMint’s shift from leading SCF to an advisory role for the super PAC a “distinction without a difference.”
Similar groups have pumped tens of millions of dollars into the presidential race this year.
DeMint’s office did not respond to an interview request.
But in a statement, he said last week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the health care law should rally the conservative cause.
“It’s now clear that the only way to save this country is for conservatives to rally together to win elections,” he said. “Now is the time for people to engage the political process like never before and do everything they can to send principled fighters to the U.S. Senate.”
DeMint’s preference for tea party challengers has helped propel relative unknowns, such as now U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, in GOP primaries.
But he’s also raised hackles in some Republican circles by backing unsuccessful upstarts at the expense of candidates with perceived stronger electability in a general election.
DeMint’s history shows he’s unlikely to change his ways with the help of the new super PAC.
“It does mean that there’s going to be money behind the people that are not the favorites of the GOP,” Bitzer said.
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that supports tighter campaign finance restrictions, said it’s concerned by DeMint’s ties to the new super PAC.
The group is weighing whether to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the super PAC.
“I think there’s really no functional distinction between the former leadership PAC and the super PAC in that they are both obviously connected to DeMint,” said Tara Malloy, the center’s senior counsel.
The group finds such connections worrisome.
“The fear is that by allowing office holders to connect themselves with this unregulated money, you are inviting corruption into the political system,” Malloy said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.