WASHINGTON — For his first eight years in Washington, Jim DeMint was like most members of Congress – relatively quiet, fairly innocuous and pretty much unknown outside his state.
Over his final six years in the Senate, DeMint rocked national politics like an earthquake, gaining fame and notoriety that few lawmakers can claim.
Reveling in his nickname as “Sen. Tea Party,” the Greenville Republican rode that populist uprising, fueling it with his uncompromising, in-your-face opposition to nearly all manner of federal spending.
DeMint, who earlier this month said he will leave the Senate in January to head a conservative think tank, helped make “earmarks” a household word. He spearheaded the drive to impose the current bipartisan moratorium on that funding, steered by members of Congress. He also helped to elevate the rapidly rising federal debt from a troublesome issue to a national crisis.
Perhaps most lastingly for his legacy, DeMint became the Senate’s biggest fundraiser, raising millions to bankroll ultraconservative Senate candidates.
Some of his acolytes, including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, now are rising Republican stars. Other DeMint protégés, including Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Todd Akin of Missouri, went down in flames, losing winnable Senate seats to Democrats.
DeMint’s many admirers say he helped bring a new generation of leaders to Washington who are forcing their colleagues to get the country’s fiscal house in order.
His numerous detractors, among them some conservative commentators and prominent Republicans, say he cost the GOP a shot at regaining control of the Senate by backing unelectable renegades.
“Policy-wise, I don’t think there’s anything out there that has his name on it that he’s going to be known for, but he definitely made his presence felt politically,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with the widely read Cook Political Report. “History will treat his time in Washington as a mixed record.”
Simplifying complex issues: ‘Amnesty’
Employing his skills as a former marketing firm owner, DeMint was able to turn complex issues into catchy, short phrases that grabbed attention and galvanized his growing legion of supporters across the country.
His branding of a major Senate immigration reform bill as “amnesty” in 2007 helped rouse grass-roots opposition that contributed to its defeat.
But two years later, his vow to make an even bigger health-care measure into President Barack Obama’s “Waterloo” failed. The Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Affordable Care Act and, eventually, the Supreme Court upheld the law.
Despite their efforts to downplay their differences, DeMint and South Carolina’s senior senator, fellow Republican Lindsey Graham of Seneca, made their state a test site for the widening divide within the GOP, casting conflicting votes and taking different stances on spending bills, immigration, climate change, Supreme Court nominees and other key issues.
Emphasizing the need to follow clear conservative principles, DeMint rejected compromise and criticized the results that came from it, warring with his own GOP at times.
He criticized Republican President George W. Bush and a GOP-controlled Congress that increased spending, drove up the national debt and passed new big-government programs, including Medicare coverage of prescription drugs and the No Child Left Behind education law.
With slight variations at different times, DeMint defiantly declared: “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don’t.”
For Graham, a Seneca Republican who has worked with Democrats to try to solve big issues, that wasn’t a viable approach to governing.
When a DeMint admirer tried to shout Graham down, yelling, “You’re a hypocrite!” at the 2009 S.C. Republican Convention, Graham retorted: “I’m a winner, pal. Winning matters to me. If it doesn’t matter to you, there’s the exit sign.”
In his tumultuous Senate career, DeMint was willing to lose multiple battles in his bid to win what he viewed as an all-out war over the direction of a nation that he repeatedly accused Obama and his congressional allies of leading toward socialism.
When DeMint tried unsuccessfully to block extension of unemployment benefits, editorial writers called him callous. But in his abiding belief that all Americans should play on a level playing field and Congress “shouldn’t pick winners and losers,” DeMint was an equal-opportunity offender.
He opposed trade subsidies for big companies, federal compensation for military family members who drank tainted water at Camp Lejeune, and special incentives to businesses who hire war veterans.
He also enraged S.C. business leaders by refusing to sign a letter to Obama, written by the state’s other lawmakers, seeking federal money to deepen the Charleston port, a crucial economic-development project for the state.
Show horse? Or work horse?
DeMint’s soft-spoken manner and slight physical stature made his rabble-rousing style all the more formidable.
That style was on display Thursday as he delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor. Saying he had discarded his prepared remarks in order to speak from the heart, DeMint thanked his wife and four children, his staffers and the people of South Carolina.
Then, he thanked his “many friends” in the Senate.
That would be standard fare for most retiring senators.
But not DeMint, a political loner who loved to tell his followers: “I didn’t come to Washington to make friends, and I haven’t been disappointed.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., heaped public praise on DeMint, who declined an interview for this story.
“They say success has many fathers, but it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more than Jim DeMint to raise the public’s awareness on spending and debt, and the threat that big government poses to our liberties,” McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Coming from McConnell, such praise was striking.
While DeMint’s growing power as a conservative kingmaker made McConnell and other prominent Republicans wary of criticizing him publicly, their aides revealed their true feelings in multiple background conversations with reporters.
They resented DeMint for forcing GOP senators to take uncomfortable votes on issues they would have preferred to avoid – and, once, were furious when he forced senators to stay in town for a rare Saturday vote, and then didn’t show up to participate in it.
In Senate parlance, some Republican senators viewed DeMint “as a show horse, not a workhorse.” They denigrated him as an ideologue who played to the party’s base.
It was no accident that DeMint failed to land a seat that he coveted on the Senate Finance Committee, a seat to which his seniority normally would have entitled him.
And it was no accident that Senate Republicans overruled DeMint when he tried to strip U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, of her Senate seniority. After Joe Miller, who had DeMint’s backing, defeated Murkowski in Alaska’s GOP primary, she launched a write-in bid to keep her seat. When she succeeded, beating GOP nominee Miller, DeMint suggested Murkowski had forfeited her party-based seniority. Other GOP senators ended the seniority squabble in her favor. But Murkowski never forgave DeMint.
‘The power of ideas’
While DeMint’s tactics sometimes left him shunned by his peers, his willingness to stand alone for the principles he held dear earned him thousands of unabashed admirers around the country.
“He is not afraid to tell the truth, and he is not afraid to take on issues, even if he’s the only one taking them on,” said Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach retiree and head of the S.C. Tea Party. “This country is going broke, we need to take a stand, and he’s one of the few people up in the capital who really understands that.”
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, elected in 2010, said DeMint is a mentor.
Mulvaney rejects the criticism that DeMint cost Republicans control of the Senate, saying DeMint supported more GOP winners than losers.
“When he made an affirmative decision to step outside the system, that’s when he vaulted to national prominence,” Mulvaney said. “I don’t know how many other people have done that in my lifetime. The man has had an inordinate impact on the United States Senate. Jim has almost reshaped the Senate in less than a decade. That’s unheard of.”
In light of his stormy tenure, the DeMint who spoke on the Senate floor Thursday for the last time sounded demure.
“I’m very grateful to my colleagues who I’ve often scrapped with on a lot of issues,” he said. “I appreciate their patience on both sides.”
Speaking quietly, DeMint said the ideas he had fought for weren’t political or partisan, just common-sense notions that some states – he mentioned Texas, North Dakota, South Carolina and Pennsylvania – have shown work, including lower taxes, less regulation and fewer labor unions.
“This is not rocket science,” DeMint said, insisting Democrats and Republicans can find common ground to solve a host of problems.
Then, DeMint dropped the other shoe.
As he spoke of his new career at the Heritage Foundation – advancing “the power of ideas” at a think tank that paid its last leader more than $1 million a year – DeMint made it clear that he leaves the Senate unchanged.
“My hope is to make conservative ideas so pervasive, so persuasive, across the country that politicians of all parties have to embrace those ideas to be elected,” DeMint said.