Washington (CNN) - Jim DeMint is sticking his finger in the eye of the National Republican Senatorial Committee once again, this time by endorsing a little-known state legislator in the Indiana Republican Senate primary instead of Dan Coats, the former senator recruited for the seat by national party officials.
"I'm very excited about what's taking place in Indiana right now," DeMint said in a statement endorsing state Sen. Marlin Stutzman. "We've got a young conservative running for the Senate who could pull off one of the biggest upsets of the year. He's surging because he's an authentic conservative who doesn't apologize for his principles."
DeMint's national profile has risen since he broke with many of his Senate colleagues last year to endorse Marco Rubio for Senate in Florida, long before the former state House speaker emerged as the favorite to win the GOP nomination over Gov. Charlie Crist.
He has used his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, to promote and raise money for other conservative Republicans in competitive primaries. DeMint has so far endorsed four Senate hopefuls along with Stutzman: Rubio in Florida, Ken Buck in Colorado, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Chuck DeVore in California.
DeMint's endorsement of Stutzman, who also runs Stutzman Farms Trucking when he's not in the state house, is the latest signal that some grassroots conservatives are looking for an alternative to Coats, who has struggled to raise money since coming out of retirement to replace outgoing Sen. Evan Bayh. Stutzman has the backing of the conservative website RedState and the support of David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
While support from DeMint isn't likely to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race - he is, after all, from South Carolina, not Indiana - DeMint could boost Stutzman's reputation nationally and help him raise some much-needed cash for the May 18 primary. Stutzman, still unknown to many Indiana voters, reportedly has just $70,000 in the bank.
DeMint's endorsement comes a day after James Dobson, the former head of Focus on the Family, endorsed Coats and cut a radio ad for his campaign.
A spokesman for Coats, Pete Seat, said his candidate continues to gain traction among Republican primary voters. "Dan Coats' emphasis on limited government, lower taxes, less spending, a strong national defense, and protecting personal liberty is resonating with Hoosiers across Indiana from all walks of life," Seat said in a statement.