10/06/2010 11:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mel Martinez Takes On DeMint: 'He Defines Success Differently Than I Would'

Former Senator Mel Martinez offered an unusually blunt assessment of the role that Sen. Jim DeMint is playing within Republican circles, going so far as to question the South Carolina Republican's definition of success for the party.

At an election-themed breakfast organized by the prominent lobbying shop DLA Piper, Martinez said he disagrees with DeMint's strategy of pushing for the most ideologically pure candidate in Republican primaries. The result, the former RNC Chairman said, is that the party is ending up with candidates who can't win and a party that in all likelihood can't govern.

"I think Jim DeMint is a fine gentleman," Martinez said. "As every American has a right, he has created a fund and helped people in races and he has taken a contrarian's view that this year has had successes. I would not have guessed it but it has... the traditional Republican candidate, like I guess in Delaware, Mike Castle in Delaware, would be the best example; perhaps in Kentucky [as well]."

Ceding that Christine O'Donnell, the candidate who knocked off Castle, would lose the election, Martinez added, "I believe in winning myself, but, you know, I'm just saying."

"[DeMint] got his candidate nominated so he was successful. But he defines success differently than I would. I would say success is how many R's we put into the Republican side of the ledger. He views that it is better to lose and have people that actually stand up 100 percent in line with his point of view."

Speaking at a safe remove from elected office, Martinez's remarks reflect what Republican campaign operatives tend to say in private: DeMint's advocacy for ideological purity has put the party in a more precarious position. O'Donnell's victory in Delaware was the most obvious example. But in seven other races, the establishment-favored Senate nominee ended up losing the election, in part, because of Tea Party rejection. Some of those nominees will win office. But others find themselves in tough races or with the real prospect of losing.

Amidst the drama, DeMint has seen his influence within GOP circles rise to uncommon heights for a first-term member (he's up for reelection this year). And on Wednesday, Martinez predicted that the South Carolina Republican would turn that support into a formal leadership position in the next Congress -- though he stressed that current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would keep his post.

"Obviously DeMint will have some people who will be coming into the Senate whom he has been very forcefully in support of," he said. "And that will give him greater standing. It will be interesting to see in leadership elections whether he rises to a leadership spot... I think Mitch McConnell will be the leader but I just wonder if [DeMint] will have some leadership role."

The problem with DeMint's ascendancy, Martinez offered in the end, was not that Republicans would end up with fewer senators than they could have elected. "I think it may be a blessing in disguise if we don't win control in the Senate," said Martinez. "I think that will help because it will still have a Democrat agenda. I think Republicans ought to be modest in victory and that will be much better for 2012." Rather, the problem is that with the purging of compromisers, the process of governing will come to complete rather than partial gridlock.

"The likely suspects that a Democrat would have gone to in recent years would have been people like [Utah Sen.] Bob Bennett, [Alaska Sen.] Lisa Murkowski, Mel Martinez, perhaps a [Missouri Sen.] Kit Bond on certain issues, a [Ohio Sen.] George Voinovich," said Martinez. "Essentially none of those names will be in the Senate this coming session. They will be replaced with people who are more inclined to be associated with and helped by Jim DeMint, who has not often been spoken in the same breathe as a compromiser. So it will be a more difficult session."