Will Jim DeMint ruin South Carolina's "first in the South" primary?

Another Republican with Tea Party credibility eyes a late entry into the 2012 race

Published June 1, 2011 3:20PM (EDT)

Jim DeMint
Jim DeMint

Add Jim DeMint to the list of Republicans pondering a late entry into the presidential race. The second-term South Carolina senator, an early favorite of Tea Party activists whose support played a key role in GOP primaries both in and outside of the Palmetto State last year, told The Hill that he has talked to his wife about the possibility of running and is praying for guidance.

"Out of respect for the people who have asked us to think about this, that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t want to imply that I’m changing in mind, but I want to consider what all these folks are doing," DeMint told the paper.

On Wednesday morning, after the story appeared, DeMint's spokesman told the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza that "nothing has changed" since DeMint's statement earlier this year that he won't run in '12. So who knows what -- if anything -- is going on? (We did see a similar chain of events last week, when Texas Governor Rick Perry made it clear to reporters that he would consider running, after which his spokesman tried to downplay the story by insisting that Perry has "no intention" to run.)

If he were to run, DeMint would be the only current senator in the race, which so far has attracted four former governors (Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Gary Johnson), two members of the House (Bachmann, Ron Paul), one former House member (Gingrich), a former senator (Santorum), and a pizza magnate/failed 2004 Senate candidate (Cain). Texas Governor Rick Perry said last week that he will think about entering the race, and there is now (yet another round of) speculation that New Jersey's Chris Christie -- who took a meeting on Tuesday with a group of Iowa donors who want him to run -- might get in.

Because of his stature, credibility with the Tea Party base, and potential appeal across the all-important South, DeMint would loom as a serious threat to win the GOP nomination. That said, it's worth wondering if his staunch, absolutist conservatism might raise red flags for some opinion leaders on the right; is he such an ideologue that we'd risk losing swing voters who might otherwise support us by nominating him? (DeMint's loyalists, of course, would note that the same concerns were raised about Ronald Reagan in 1980.)

Another question about a DeMint candidacy involves his home state, which has played host to the critical "first in the South" GOP primary since 1980. It's the state where George H.W. Bush finished off Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in 1988, where Dole undid the damage from his New Hampshire loss to Pat Buchanan in 1996, where George W. Bush marginalized John McCain (at least within the GOP) in 2000, and where McCain established himself as the near-certain GOP nominee in 2008. In his story in The Hill, Alexander Bolton writes:

The second-term senator would have the inside track to win South Carolina, a key early state in the nomination process. Since 1980, every Republican who has triumphed in the Palmetto State has gone on to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

There are two problems with this logic, though. One is that DeMint will only have the inside track to win South Carolina if he's still a viable candidate after Iowa and New Hampshire. Basically, given his appeal to religious conservatives and Tea Party supporters, the bar would presumably be high for DeMint in Iowa. If he were to fare poorly there, he'd quickly be written off by the media and party elites, and his polling support elsewhere would collapse. Even if he didn't drop out, he would then probably be the underdog even in his home state, and if he were to still win it under those circumstances, it probably wouldn't have much value (like when Paul Simon won Illinois in 1988, or when Howard Dean won Vermont in 2004 -- both meaningless wins that came long after both candidates had demonstrated they weren't nationally viable).

And even if he is viable, it's an open question if winning South Carolina would do for DeMint anything like what it did for McCain, Bush 43, Dole and Bush 41. The extreme example that comes to mind here is Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator who sought the Democratic nomination in 1992. He won his home state's lead-off caucuses with 80 percent of the vote, and got absolutely zero bounce from it, because every other candidate had ceded the state to him. As I said, this is an extreme example; it's highly unlikely the other GOP candidates would all completely abandon South Carolina if DeMint were to run. But a DeMint victory would be easy for the press and his opponents to downplay -- while a poor showing would be easy to portray as a catastrophe.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

MORE FROM Steve Kornacki

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room