WASHINGTON — South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint endorsed Tea Party movement favorite Rand Paul in the Kentucky U.S. Senate race on Wednesday, just one day after the senator's colleague, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, endorsed Paul's opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
DeMint, a staunch conservative, has been mentioned as a challenger to McConnell for the Senate GOP leadership position. DeMint has said he is uninterested in the post.
"Senator McConnell and I are on different sides in this race but I support him as our leader," DeMint said in a statement.
"We appreciate all the conservative leaders supporting Rand Paul," said Paul campaign manager David Adams. "Senator DeMint has been a stalwart in the U.S. Senate for the issues Paul cares about, such as term limits, ending pork barrel spending and protecting the unborn. We expect that his support and help from a growing group of people will help Paul come May 18th."
Paul spoke with DeMint earlier in the year in what Adams termed "an ideological conversation rather than a political one." However, Paul did ask the senator for his endorsement.
"I'm endorsing Rand Paul because he's a true conservative who will stand up to the Washington establishment," DeMint said. "Rand has been running on the issues that matter since the beginning of this campaign. He's a strong advocate for balanced budgets, he wants to end the culture of earmarks, he supports term limits, and he's 100 percent pro-life. Rand is exactly the kind of leader Americans are looking for right now."
Grayson, a favorite of the GOP establishment, trails Paul, a poster child of the Tea Party movement and the son of 2008 presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, by double digits in most polls.
"There's no question that DeMint wants to become a major factional leader in the Republican Party by endorsing the conservative alternative in almost every circumstance," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "I don't think he particularly cares what McConnell thinks. He's trying to build a constituency outside of D.C."
McConnell took the unusual step Tuesday of choosing sides in a Republican Kentucky primary when he endorsed Grayson, highlighting a growing uneasiness between the Republican Party establishment and grassroots conservatives.
Last month, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky, issued a surprise endorsement of Paul, calling him the one "strong, principled conservative" and the best choice to fill the seat Bunning will vacate later this year. Grayson was once considered a Bunning protege.
James Rosen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.