Why did Sen. Jim DeMint quit the Senate?

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.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina speaks to media on Capitol Hill in Washington in this file photo from earlier this year. DeMint announced Thursday that he is resigning to take over at Heritage Foundation.

Jim DeMint, one of the tea party’s founding fathers and leading intellectual lights, is leaving the US Senate for the presidency of the Heritage Foundation think tank – a move that some say may give him a greater clout as an arch-conservative voice uninhibited by party leadership.

The senator from South Carolina is stepping aside two years into his second Senate term. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will name his replacement, who will serve until a special election in 2014.

Senator DeMint’s term will be remembered less for personal policy achievements than the political organization he built – and the contingent of deeply conservative senators he helped elect. DeMint played a key role in cultivating, funding, and stumping for a veritable who’s who of senators idolized on the right: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas.

“Jim has been a source of inspiration for many of us who came to Washington to fight for our core conservative beliefs,” said Senator Lee in a statement. “He has shown that getting things done doesn’t have to mean abandoning your principles. For too long, he was a movement unto himself in the Senate, keeping the torch lit for free-market principles and limited government.”

But having built the ranks of conservatives in the Senate through his own advocacy and the "super political-action committee" that he founded, the Senate Conservatives Fund, he now enters a different role as the head of the nation’s largest and most prestigious conservative think tank.

In his new post at the Heritage Foundation, he won’t be able to orchestrate or participate in the same sort of direct political activity due to the foundation’s status as a tax-exempt organization

“He’ll be somewhat limited in his political activity,” says Chris Chocola, the president of the like-minded Club for Growth. But “he expands his ability to influence policy and conservative thought through Heritage. There’s others like Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Ted Cruz that will work hard to support future colleagues of theirs.”

The foundation does maintain a separate political advocacy wing known as Heritage Action, however.

“They have separate but complementary functions,” says Jim Weidman, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation. “Heritage is there to help lawmakers see the light on policy and Heritage Action is there to hold their feet to the flames.”

Indeed, some believe that by leaving the strictures of the Senate, DeMint may be able to expand his influence even more widely.

“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.

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.”

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