Jim DeMint, George W Bush aide and Artur Davis join GOP primary race in Pennsylvania

A field of 13 Republicans vying to fill the US Senate seat previously held by Rick Santorum could include both a talk show host and a former top aide to George W Bush.

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The two are joining a field that includes two other A-list conservative figures, talk show host Jim DeMint and former congressman Artur Davis, both of whom may not have enough name recognition to win an open Republican primary. Two members of Congress are also in the race.

All eyes will be on Carson City, Nevada, this Saturday when DeMint, the former Heritage Foundation head, and Davis, a former African American lawmaker and state elected official, are seen by some observers as laying the groundwork for a US Senate run.

Jim DeMint is seen by some observers as laying the groundwork for a US Senate run. Photograph: John Locher/AP

“I’ve got some great friends who’ve been begging me to get in,” Davis said Thursday, noting that DeMint is “a tremendous grass roots campaigner”.

Despite the high-profile and well-funded candidates, the race is still not a sure thing for Republicans, who are defending the seat where Rick Santorum retired earlier this year.

Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College political scientist, said: “This will be the most competitive Republican primary in the nation, if not the country,” because the top four candidates all have records of support for conservative causes.

However, all are in the primary election to fill the seat until the general election in November 2018 and it is unclear whether any would be able to get to the general election without a Democratic opponent.

Davis has a mixed record in a historically African American state, including sponsoring the education bill that banned parochial schools from the public school system in Alabama. In a June 12 interview with Philadelphia magazine, Davis – a Birmingham native – talked about wanting to work to “create an atmosphere of opportunity for young black men and young white males so that young people know that they have chances for greater success”.

“I don’t know if that’s going to mean getting on the political world stage more than working to improve public education,” he said.

DeMint, who like Davis in recent years has moved to the more moderate Republican party, has advocated for controversial laws like last year’s “stand your ground” legislation, which allow citizens to use deadly force in self-defense against criminals.

DeMint’s tenure as head of the conservative Heritage Foundation has featured pushing for tougher federal immigration laws, but has also included championing Republican concerns for small business and people living in poverty.

Davis’s challenge would be securing the Republican nomination. Borick said: “The biggest political obstacle is DeMint’s vote for the budget that will drive that primary.”

Beyond the primary election, there are several potential obstacles in the general election. Democrats have a strong, organised political organization. In Pennsylvania, polls show that the Republican presidential nominee would face tougher competition than in 2012, in which Republican Mitt Romney eked out a win by 206 votes.

In the state that handed the Democratic candidate Barack Obama his first presidential victory, the Democrat Hillary Clinton has emerged as the top contender in the Senate race.

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