COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint will return to Washington for a second term after an easy election that saw his national status rise as a kingmaker for the tea party movement and an unlikely challenge from an oddball opponent.
DeMint rolled over unemployed military veteran Alvin Greene, a Democrat who won his party's nomination — but not its support — and Green Party candidate Tom Clements. With more than one-third of the state's precincts reporting, DeMint held a lead of nearly 92,000 votes over Greene, with about 59 percent of the vote.
Greene won 32 percent of votes cast, with 9 percent going to Clements.
The incumbent entered Tuesday's election with a massive lead in fundraising and in recent polls that underscore his popularity in a conservative state.
"I'm really fond of Jim DeMint, I think he's been courageous and bold and an exemplary senator," said Jenny Edwards, a 57-year-old Columbia resident who was laid off over the summer from her job as a school librarian.
In a statement, DeMint thanked voters for their support and called the elections around the country a referendum on the Obama administration's policies.
"I hope everyone is listening," DeMint said. "Americans want less government and more freedom. ... This election can be a watershed for reform."
DeMint spent much of the election season backing tea party candidates in other states, bankrolling other conservative candidates with millions from a political action fund.
He gave early support to Florida's Marco Rubio and Kentucky's Rand Paul, both of whom defeated establishment Republican candidates to win their primaries. Paul on Tuesday beat Democrat Jack Conway for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning.
When GOP leaders attacked Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, DeMint gave her money and a key endorsement, helping the underdog pull off one of the year's biggest political upsets over Republican Rep. Michael Castle.
DeMint's campaign fund peaked at more than $3 million this summer and he spent little on himself, instead doling out $1.3 million to Republican parties in states like Colorado, Florida and Kentucky. South Carolina's own GOP got $250,000 from the Republican, who now reports having $2.5 million on hand.
But the 59-year-old from Greenville has been rivaled by Greene when it comes to media attention.
An unemployed military veteran who lives with his father, Greene surprised his party with an upset primary win over a former state lawmaker in June. Democrats wouldn't back his run after The Associated Press reported that he faces a felony obscenity charge, accused of showing pornography to a university student, which his lawyer has characterized as a misguided attempt at flirtation. He's scheduled to appear in court on that charge Nov. 16.
Greene's fundraising never met the $5,000 threshold required for reporting to the Federal Election Commission and he appeared only sporadically at barbecues and meet-the-candidate events.
Some voters said Greene got their vote because they simply were supporting all Democrats. Others said they split their tickets.
"I didn't want to vote for Alvin Greene because I thought he's a joke," said Jacob John, a 25-year-old Columbia business consultant who voted for DeMint and for Democrats in contests for governor and the U.S. House.
But Greene did earn ballots for other reasons.
Bill Simpson, a 66-year-old retired lawyer from Columbia, said he would not vote for DeMint because he believes the senator is trying to obstruct progress in Washington instead of compromising. So, he voted for Greene.
"If the Democrats are lame enough to allow him to win their nomination, then they should be punished," Simpson said.
At a gathering at a ballroom in his hometown of Manning — where fewer than 10 supporters and campaign volunteers had gathered by 7:30 p.m. — Greene told a handful of reporters he had no plans to call DeMint and did not know what was next for him.
"There's no need to give a formal speech," Greene said. "We'll just have to see."
Only Clements mounted a media campaign, using TV and radio airtime to criticize DeMint's absence from the state to instead focus on candidates elsewhere.
Nathalie Dupree, a celebrity chef and cookbook author, jumped into the race as one of several write-in candidates because of DeMint's opposition to federal earmarks for a study of deepening the Charleston Harbor.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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