How Jim DeMint Changed the Senate
His goal was to recruit conservatives and make the chamber a more combative place. Mission accomplished.
“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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.