Why did Sen. Jim DeMint quit the Senate? (+video)
Tea party hero Sen. Jim DeMint will head the conservative Heritage think tank, and some say freedom from party politics could make him an even bigger player on the right.
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“Anyone who really understands this will conclude that DeMint's power just multiplied many times over along with that of the conservative movement,” says a Republican operative who could speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.Skip to next paragraph
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Others agree that DeMint is well situated to expand his influence among conservatives.
"I’ve always found that it’s useful for people to understand both sides of the game, the 'inside the dome' insider game, and what it takes to get things done and also to understand the outside game" of winning elections, says Sal Russo, a Republican strategist affiliated with California-based Tea Party Express. "When people understand both, they’re a lot stronger and a lot better [at moving the debate], and DeMint’s been active on both sides."
DeMint’s willingness to cross the Republican establishment in electoral politics is well-established. In opposing the candidates favored by the formal Republican political machinery, he generated some of the tea party’s most flying successes, like Senator Cruz, but also contributed to some its most fantastic flops. DeMint-backed candidates in Delaware, Colorado, and Indiana lost, helping keep Democrats in control of the Senate in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
That willingness to buck the establishment also put him at loggerheads with his own Senate Republican leaders, a group he critiqued – if obliquely, at times.
On Thursday, however, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky – a man whom DeMint rankled by backing Senator Paul over the minority leader’s favored candidate in Kentucky’s 2010 GOP primary – looked favorably on DeMint’s time in the Senate.
“Jim helped provide a powerful voice for conservative ideals in a town where those principles are too often hidden beneath business as usual,” Senator McConnell said in a statement. “There is no question in my mind that he raised the profile of important issues like spending and debt and helped galvanize the American people against a big government agenda.”
A believer in citizen legislators who serve under term limits, DeMint previously served only three terms in the House of Representatives (something he promised during his initial campaign) before heading to the Senate, where he had promised to limit himself to two elections.
A spokesman for the Heritage Foundation said the group had been speaking to DeMint for several months. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told reporters that on Thursday that he met with DeMint earlier this week and that it didn’t appear that the senator had his mind set on leaving the chamber.
When the news came, it surprised Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas. Congressman Huelskamp, who met on a regular basis with a DeMint-led group of conservatives from both chambers to talk strategy and policy, was one of four conservative lawmakers booted from plum committee assignments for what Republican leadership perceived as a lack of discipline in following the party line.
Being branded by party leadership as out of line is just fine with folks like Huelskamp, who, thanks in part to the mentorship of DeMint, see such branding by the party establishment as a badge of honor.
Having “been punished for your views, it enhances our ability to have a voice around the nation. I don’t think the insiders have figured that out yet,” Huelskamp tells the Monitor.
Republican leadership “can’t [exercise] control from the top down. It doesn’t work on the economy and Republicans somehow think it works in politics.... DeMint would probably say that becoming a [party] leader means you can’t really do much at all. You’re locked in,” Huelskamp says. “And now he’s free to pursue all those other avenues of opportunity.”