ABC’s Michael Falcone reports:
Some of the country’s most powerful conservative leaders emerged from a five-hour long strategy session on Friday with an unequivocal message of support for South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who is facing partial blame for the GOP's failure to take control of the Senate.
DeMint has become a human punching bag in some corners of the party for forcefully backing a handful of anti-establishment primary candidates like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Colorado’s Ken Buck, who ended up losing their general election contests.
It’s a line of attack that Brent Bozell, the president of the conservative Media Research Center and a lead organizer of Friday's gathering, rejected.
“The big winners of 2010 are Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin and liberal and moderate Republicans can’t stand it,” Bozell said in an interview with ABC News. “The Republican Party owes Jim DeMint a massive debt of gratitude and a standing ovation for what he did.”
But prominent Republicans, including DeMint’s South Carolina colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott have suggested that endorsing insurgent candidates was a mistake.
“If the moderates in the Republican Party want war, they’re going to lose,” Bozell said, holding up Graham as an example. “I guarantee you we will see their political carcasses when they come up for re-election.”
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the most active conservative groups of the 2010 election cycle, called DeMint one of the “shining lights” of the Senate.
“Our movement is better off without having Mike Castle as the 51st vote,” said Phillips, who also participated in Friday’s meeting.
The event, which took place at Bozell’s country retreat in Virginia, included a number of elected officials as well as key figures in the movement. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, former Indiana Republican Rep. Dave McIntosh, Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo and CRC Public Relations president Greg Mueller all attended the session.
Perkins said that conservatism has historically been viewed as a three-legged stool held up by a focus on national defense, social and family issues, and economic and fiscal policy, but that the emergence of the Tea Party added another leg.
“It’s a broader conservative movement under another name,” Perkins said, adding that it was important for Tea Party backed candidates and other newly-elected Republicans to understand that their victories were not so much “an endorsement” of the GOP, but rather “a rejection of the liberal policies of this administration that pushed the nation to the edge of fiscal and moral bankruptcy.”
Perkins noted that he has been making that point clear in his conversations with soon-to-be freshman lawmakers.
Phillips said there was broad agreement at the meeting that the early focus of Republicans in the new Congress should be repeal of health care reform. He also said conservatives would be on high alert for any “end runs around Congress” that the Obama administration might pursue through regulatory agencies.
Attendees said a new crop of rising starts, including Florida GOP Senator-elect Marco Rubio and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has been burnishing his conservative credentials on a variety of hot-button issues, were bringing new energy to the movement.
According to Bozell, the group avoided a lengthy discussion of the 2012 presidential election. "My message to conservatives around the country is ‘don’t worry the next leader will come,'" he said.
At a similar discussion shortly after the 2008 election, Bozell said the conversation focused on how to “stop the tsunami,” set off by Democrats but on Friday the predominant question was: “Now that the world is our oyster, what do we do?”
Still he said the group was taking the lessons of recent political history to heart: “If Republicans don’t honor their commitment to constitutional conservatism and limited government, that pendulum can swing in the opposite direction.”