Sen. Jim DeMint is making a bid to be the tea party movement’s best friend in Washington. It’s hardly a coincidence that the South Carolina Republican finds himself with few friends in his own workplace.
DeMint — ideological warrior, cable TV regular, possible 2012 presidential candidate — is trying to channel the anti-establishment passions roiling the conservative movement while serving in the U.S. Senate, which even in a more raffish age of politics still counts as the most establishmentarian institution in American life.
Examples of his senatorial poor form keep growing. DeMint has refused to endorse some of his fellow Republican senators facing intraparty challenges from the right. He openly backs some candidates opposed by his party’s Senate leadership. And he is unabashed in announcing that the best way to win influence in the Senate is not by making friends and patiently massaging the legislative process but by exerting public pressure from activists and the media to bear on his colleagues.
Not surprisingly, his colleagues don’t especially like it. Many GOP senators privately scoff at DeMint as a showboating opportunist and a pain in certain parts of the anatomy. Even in on-the-record interviews, some Republican senators said that DeMint does not appreciate the need for a successful party to widen its ideological and geographic base beyond the deeply conservative Southern state he represents.
DeMint said he is unapologetic about rocking the boat.
“I’ve found that most of the people in the Congress are here to get money for their states or their congressional districts — they think that’s what their role is,” he lamented in an interview. “The reforms we have to make to save our country — like getting rid of earmarks, balancing the budget, tax reform or fixing Social Security or Medicare — you can’t get these folks to sign up for a bill.”
Of his own place of employment, DeMint said: “I’ve just found that the Senate is going to be the last place to change, and if I wait for them to act, America will be in a ditch.”
It is not clear how effective DeMint’s flamboyant brand of politics will be in the long term. For now, however, he is the most vivid example of how, in a new-media age of cable television and the Web, a politician willing to step on toes and play to ideological crowds can jump the line of older colleagues in establishing a national profile.
In an earlier age, a politician like DeMint — a former House member and businessman whose fiery views coexist with a surprisingly mild personality — could have expected to languish for years in relative obscurity.
By becoming for practical purposes the Washington leader of the tea party movement, DeMint also illustrates the degree to which energy on the right is now flowing to the capital and not from it. Congressional GOP leaders like House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell derive their power from the inside, by virtue of the support of their colleagues. DeMint is the model now for how a rank-and-file member otherwise consigned to the back bench can be relevant without any title. It may not make him popular at the weekly caucus lunches, but it will get him on Sean Hannity’s show.
“I’ve seen that when I couldn’t get the support internally … when I went to the media, the blogs, the radio talk shows, that I could get millions of people calling and e-mailing,” DeMint recalled of how he helped to torpedo immigration reform in 2007.
On politics, it means offering only a deafening silence toward senators facing primary challenges he views as insufficiently conservative — Arizona’s John McCain and Utah’s Bob Bennett — and backing more ideologically pure candidates than his party’s leadership prefers in the Senate primaries in Florida and California.
Further rankling his colleagues, DeMint is using his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, to rate senators on just how conservative they are. Several who were given relatively low marks by DeMint — based on their votes in the last Congress — are dismissive of the ratings.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said his 89 percent lifetime ranking from the American Conservative Union is “what counts” — not the 76 percent rating from DeMint, who, not surprisingly, is the only senator to receive a 100 percent rating on his website.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, vice chairwoman of the GOP Conference, who got a 50 percent score for her votes in 2008, said that DeMint’s ratings were “assuming his standard of conservatism.”
And Bennett, a close ally of McConnell’s who received a 60 percent score from DeMint’s PAC, said he had “no idea [on] what basis people make these kinds of calculations.”
“I can show you surveys that show you I’m one of the most conservative members and another survey that shows me that I’m not,” said Bennett, who is facing multiple GOP candidates running on his right flank. “It all depends on who is picking the votes to come to the conclusion he wants.”
Asked to respond to DeMint’s decision not to endorse him in the race, Bennett said: “I have no comment.”
McCain said he wasn’t bothered by DeMint’s decision not to endorse him in his primary contest with former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, pointing out his support from other conservative figures, such as his 2008 running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
What is clearly bothering others in the caucus, though, is DeMint’s seeming preference for being pure and in the minority than having a squishy majority.
His new stump speech mantra: “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters.”
The conservative Rubio is competing against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the GOP Senate nomination in Florida. Specter, a onetime liberal Republican, switched parties and is now running for reelection as a Democrat in Pennsylvania.
Top GOP senators suggested DeMint is politically naive.
“You have to recognize there are some states that are not likely to vote or elect conservatives as solid in their conservatism as Sen. DeMint, for example,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the minority whip, adding: “Would I like to see everybody with a point of view just like mine? That’s not realistic if you’re going to have a very broad-based party that represents all parts of the country.”
“Most of us realize that winning an election in South Carolina in the Senate is very different than winning an election in Massachusetts,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
DeMint said he doesn’t wish to remain in the minority but also is not interested in an ideologically flaccid majority.
“I’ve been here with 55 Republicans, many of which were short some principles, and you just can’t govern, you can’t lead and you don’t keep the majority when it’s about numbers,” he argued.
But even as most in the party concede they lost their way during the Bush years, the mere mention of DeMint’s name in the Capitol is enough to get GOP eyes rolling. The common view, which no official will voice publicly, for fear of giving the South Carolinian a higher profile, is that DeMint is a caucus of one who relies upon old tricks to draw notice.
“There is no easier way to get attention than to be the conservative or the Republican who bashes their own,” carped a Senate GOP aide.
Another Senate Republican staffer was even more withering: “His effectiveness, both politically and legislatively, makes Kirsten Gillibrand look like Everett Dirksen.”
(Gillibrand is the senator, widely mocked by opponents as ineffectual, appointed to take over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat. Dirksen was a legendary Republican senator from Illinois.)
DeMint fired back that his support for Senate candidates once considered too far to the right by the establishment isn’t looking so foolish at the moment.
“They didn’t think Marco Rubio had a chance; now [it] looks like he’s 30 points ahead of Gov. Crist,” he said of the Florida race. “They didn’t think Pat Toomey [running against Specter] had a chance, and I think he’s going to win the Pennsylvania race.”
If DeMint’s ways have annoyed some in the upper echelons of his own party, they’ve endeared him to conservative true believers.
Chris Chocola, a former congressman from Indiana who now heads the Club for Growth, introduced the senator as indispensable at his organization’s meeting last weekend in Florida.
“Nobody does more to keep Congress on the side of freedom than DeMint does,” said Chocola, recalling his comments in Palm Beach. “He stands up for limited spending better than anybody.”
As for his own ambitions, DeMint won’t completely slam and lock the door shut when questioned about his interest in the presidency.
Asked if there was any scenario under which he would run in 2012, he said: “I don’t think so.” But he added, “You can’t ever say in absolutes.”
A backer of Mitt Romney in 2008, DeMint has raised eyebrows by indicating that he’s not wedded to the former Massachusetts governor again and by raising the names of other possibilities, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
“I think there’s going to be several good candidates, and I hope to be a part of helping to select one that will really embrace where America is today,” DeMint said.
First, he’ll have to get past his own reelection. Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in South Carolina since 1998, and DeMint has $3.2 million in the bank.
But this week, Democrats got a candidate in the race who said that he will hammer the incumbent for misplaced priorities.
“South Carolina is hurting today, and the senator is running around the country raising money for anything but South Carolina,” Victor Rawl, a former circuit court judge and state legislator, said in an interview.
DeMint argued that his constituents support his national profile and his job is to fight for more than the narrow interests of the Palmetto State.
“What South Carolinians want me to do is fight for the things I’m fighting for,” he argued. “I think that they see that helping to elect a few more people that believe as they do is the best way for me to serve our state. I don’t think a majority of South Carolinians think I’m here to bring home the bacon.”