It says something about the state of the conservative movement and the Republican Party that Jim DeMint’s power won’t wane at all – and, in fact, might even grow – as he leaves the U.S. Senate to run the Heritage Foundation.
To be sure, there was a time a few years back when DeMint’s stature and visibility was dependent on his Senate service. His initial victory in 2004 lifted him from the obscurity of the House to a perch from which he could attract attention from the conservative movement and the national press corps. And he exploited that opportunity for all it was worth, positioning himself as an ideological purist and playing the role of conscientious objector when his fellow Republicans sold out conservative principles (as he understands them). Active involvement in Republican primary races around the country grew out of this, with DeMint launching the Senate Conservatives Fund to provide political and financial support to fellow true believers, even – or especially – if they were up against candidates with substantial establishment support.
This is the main legacy of DeMint’s eight-year Senate career. In the past two election cycles, DeMint’s fingerprints have been on some of the most significant and fateful GOP primary results. In some instances, like the 2010 Kentucky race that helped bring Rand Paul to the Senate, he succeeded in elevating a fellow traveler and bending the Senate that much closer to his far-right absolutism. But in others, his efforts backfired, producing fundamentally unelectable candidates (think Christine O’Donnell) who lost seats the GOP would otherwise have won.
The reverberations from disasters like O’Donnell were evident far from the states where they played out. Collectively, they were a major reason Democrats managed to protect their Senate majority the past two cycles. Their extremism and not-infrequent outbursts of fringe-ish behavior also helped poison the Republican Party brand; the GOP has consistently lagged behind the Democrats in national polls on favorability, and the party’s image problem may well have cost Mitt Romney a few points in the presidential race.
Perhaps most significantly, though, the success of DeMint-type candidates altered the behavior of Republicans who weren’t previously far-right conservatives, intimidating them into acquiescing to the Tea Party’s demands for constant confrontations with President Obama in the 112thCongress – confrontations that accomplished little policy-wise while taking a serious political toll on the party. Fear of the Tea Party base that DeMint represents ruined several high-profile Republican candidates in 2012. Take the case of Tommy Thompson, a veteran Wisconsin pol with a reputation for pragmatism who found himself promising a Tea Party audience that he wanted to get rid of Medicare. When tape of that moment emerged in the fall, Thompson’s campaign took a serious hit, and he went on to lose convincingly to his Democratic opponent.
Granted, DeMint was hardly the only force behind the Tea Party’s recent wave of primary successes. But he has been a significant contributor to it, and in his new role at Heritage, he’ll be able to keep playing the same game. If anything, he’ll have even more latitude. As a senator, DeMint felt compelled to show at least some restraint, refusing to formally back a direct challenge to a fellow Republican incumbent. (Of course, this didn’t prevent him from throwing his weight behind Kentucky’s Paul, whose ‘10 GOP primary campaign represented a threat to Mitch McConnell’s control of the state Republican Party.) Now every sitting GOP senator will be fair game.
The reality is that DeMint hasn’t needed the Senate to be a power player for a while now. He has no major legislative projects in the pipeline and probably doesn’t care that much about many of the bills that come before him. He’s an anti-government absolutist. In terms of committee work and floor votes, that role can be filled by someone else – there are plenty of DeMint-types for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to choose from as she mulls her appointment options. (The leading candidate appears to be Rep. Tim Scott, whose voting record would surely be no different from DeMint’s.)
What DeMint has apparently figured out is that in today’s Republican universe there’s less of a relationship than ever between holding office and holding power. This is what the rise of insular conservative media has done. News is interpreted, talking points are developed and agendas are set on Fox News, talk radio and in the right-wing blogosphere. Republican members of Congress, by and large, take their cues from conservative media, rather than shaping it. This year’s GOP presidential primaries featured more Fox News contributors than active officeholders. Way back, DeMint needed his office to attract attention, but now that he’s a huge player in the insular Republican universe, he doesn’t need it anymore. He can keep right on calling the shots from his new perch at Heritage. Do you think Fox News will be any less interested in having him on now? Or that his endorsement will represent the stamp of purity any less than it now does? He’ll keep right on playing the same role, although there will be one difference: He’ll be making a lot more money.