How Jim DeMint Changed the Senate

His goal was to recruit conservatives and make the chamber a more combative place. Mission accomplished. 

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, speaks during The Family Research Council.
Sen. Jim DeMint at the Family Research Council Action Values Voter Summit in September in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages.

For quite some time, in quiet tones, the friends of Jim DeMint had been expecting him to leave the Senate and take over the Heritage Foundation. On Thursday morning, when DeMint said he’d be quitting the Senate four years early, the believers were gleeful. “I’d secretly wished for it,” said one staffer from the conservative think tank. “I always thought he was going to head Heritage,” said an alumnus of DeMint’s Senate staff.

At 11 a.m., outgoing Heritage President and CEO Ed Feulner introduced DeMint to most of the think tank’s staff. They packed the Allison Auditorium, the seventh-floor venue that has a clear view of the nearby Capitol, and they gave the new guy a standing O. “I feel like I just walked in the front door of my own house,” said DeMint. “Leaving the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation is a big promotion.”

Senators don’t typically talk like that until they’ve lost re-election. Heritage, like D.C.’s other think tanks, is peopled by “fellows” who lost their last elections and want to keep respectable toeholds in the city. DeMint will probably sextuple his salary by moving out of the Senate,  but he’s giving up the ability to introduce bills, filibuster Democratic legislation, put holds on nominations, and humiliate presidential nominees on C-Span 2.

Why did DeMint want to quit, and why did Heritage welcome him so warmly? DeMint-ism was never about legislating. It was about blocking legislation and unwinding current laws. DeMint figured out, correctly, that he could do more good playing the outside game as his acolytes in the Senate played the inside game. Heritage agreed. The Tea Party, as represented by DeMint, has taken over a tea-and-cookies conservative institution and readied it for guerrilla warfare.

DeMint has never known anything else. In 1983, clutching his MBA from Clemson University, DeMint founded a marketing firm. Nine years later, he was approached by Rep. Bob Inglis to work on his campaign for the redrawn 1st congressional district, covering Greenville, Spartanburg, and most of upstate South Carolina. DeMint’s first real political job was message-testing and marketing for a Republican trying to defeat a resilient incumbent Democrat who’d worked for the Peace Corps and Head Start. Inglis won, served three terms, then made way for his marketer, who’d been losing friends and clients because of his campaign work. “I quickly learned that there is little glamour and a lot of suspicion in politics,” wrote DeMint in his 2009 memoir/manifesto Saving Freedom. He was already 47 years old.

In the House, DeMint quickly figured out two things: who had power, and what he wanted to stop them from doing with that power. He became the freshman class president (in a weak year for the party) and sidled up to the man Republicans thought would be speaker, Bob Livingston. “I spent the evening [of the class dinner] bending Livingston’s ear about freedom and the policy ideas I believed would inspire all Americans,” wrote DeMint in 2009. “He seemed really interested.” And then Livingston quit, done in by a sex scandal, and Republicans gave the gavel to the colorless Dennis Hastert.

Slightly discouraged, DeMint took his oath of office. In his memoir, he focused on the text of the oath—references to the Constitution, but not to any sort of legislative goals. “There is nothing in this oath about representing my district and state or helping the poor and downtrodden,” he would remember. “There was nothing about responding to the woes of the American people.” He became a reliable “no” vote, admiring the stances of Ron Paul (“he argued that just about everything Congress did was unconstitutional [and] he was usually right”). He was one of 34 Republicans to oppose No Child Left Behind and one of 25 to oppose Medicare Part D.

DeMint’s colleagues, like Paul Ryan, took the bullet on those George W. Bush initiatives.  They got clout. DeMint’s clout remained nonexistent. It wasn’t until 2004, when he moved up to the Senate, that DeMint found a way to influence the Congress without actually legislating. Bush spent most of 2005 campaigning for Social Security privatization, hoping that Congress would take one of the proposals that had been kicking around and turn it into a bill.

It was a perfect DeMint cause, and he joined it, sponsoring a bill that would have created private “GROW accounts,” invested in government bonds, funded by surplus FICA taxes. It was a perfect DeMint cause because it was doomed. Beautifully branded—who doesn’t like accounts that grow?—it needed pressure on Congress from outside, by a movement ready to fight a decades-long battle for entitlement reform. The movement did not exist.

In the 2006 elections, Republican numbers in the Senate dropped from 55 to 49. In 2008, they dropped to 41. DeMint, like most conservatives, interpreted this as proof that the party needed to move right. “Americans do prefer a traditional conservative government,” he told South Carolina Republicans after the Obama win. “They just did not believe Republicans were going to give it to them.” Four days later, in the Senate GOP’s closed-door leadership meetings, DeMint proposed that the party limit members to only six years on the appropriations committee. In his second memoir, The Great American Awakening, DeMint admitted that he lost by a 36-5 margin and “effectively entered a new phase of my Senate career.”

“I decided my work could no longer be with other senators,” he wrote. “I would have to find ways to work with the American people to elect a new class of senators.”

And so he did. He met with Pat Toomey, who would run for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania and scare Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party. He met with Marco Rubio, who made him misty-eyed as he talked about his family’s flight from Cuba’s communism. He met with Rand Paul, who was challenging Mitch McConnell’s anointed candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky. Suddenly, that movement he’d needed in 2005 had come into existence. Everything DeMint did was amplified by Tea Party activists—heckling Charlie Crist here, heckling Arlen Specter there—and promoted in the conservative media. DeMint would go anywhere to talk to Tea Partiers. “They were hoping and praying for a few members of Congress to stand with them,” he would write. “Something deeply spiritual was happening in the nation.”

Most of DeMint’s 2010 candidates won. The media focused on the candidates who blew it, like Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Colorado’s Ken Buck, and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. In the chatty, catty Senate, it was easy to find Republicans scapegoating DeMint for those losers. But he’d succeeded in his other races, and when the Senate met again in November 2010, his new recruits helped ban earmarking. In December, the Senate killed an omnibus spending bill that both sides had expected to pass. No single politician had so much influence in shifting his party toward his goals.

And yet, for all that underdog success, DeMint mostly lost. By nudging out Specter, DeMint ensured a 60th Democratic vote for the Affordable Care Act. By defeating that omnibus bill, DeMint’s colleagues kicked off an era of short-term spending bills, interrupted occasionally by legislative standoffs in which Republicans try (and fail) to find leverage for structural reforms. DeMint introduced 35 bills in this Congress, everything from a National Right to Work Act to a ban on future IMF bailouts for struggling countries. None of his bills became law. He was a marketer, a recruiter—not a legislator. He never pretended otherwise.

What does any of this mean for Heritage? Since the 1970s, the think tank has churned out white papers, rapid responses, and smart staffers for Republican members of Congress. In 2010, it launched a 501(c)4 campaign arm, Heritage Action for America, which started scoring the votes of wayward Republicans and running ads on key issues. Some congressional Republicans complained—weren’t there already enough groups giving them report cards and demanding they go the right way on “message” votes?

DeMint hasn’t been hired to change that. He’s been hired to make it work, to get more Republicans singing from the hymnal. He’ll fit right in. The current head of Heritage Action got there after spending 2007 and 2008 on the Hill, working with a Republican senator who wanted to keep the party pure. The senator’s name was Jim DeMint.