Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Jim DeMint’s announcement last week that he will leave the Senate in January surprised his colleagues. But the news is not exactly shaking things up.
In fact, it may help to calm things down.
DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, was the self-appointed father of the Tea Party movement in the Senate, the officially appointed chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee and the founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund. From those combined positions, he established himself as an influential rabble-rouser for the right, within and outside the Senate chamber.
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., complained about extremism in the Republican Party, he was usually talking about a position DeMint had advocated. When Reid complained about abuse of the procedural filibuster, that’s DeMint, too.
Whenever DeMint felt an issue wasn’t getting enough attention on the Senate floor — be it the tax-cut plans, the defense authorization bill or anything in between — he would threaten a filibuster.
Senators on both sides of the aisle praised that “passion” as they remarked on the news of his departure. Even Reid shifted his tone upon learning of DeMint’s impending retirement.
“I’ve always liked the guy, even though I disagree with so much of what he’s done,” Reid said. “I personally believe he does what he does out of a sense of real belief, not posturing.”
“He was a leader inside the Senate, a good conservative voice that stood up and spoke during caucuses, which was important,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said. “I think he had a lot of people who took his comments very seriously. I did.”
But they also acknowledged that DeMint’s departure could take a thorn out of the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders’ sides.
“It will probably make (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s life a little easier because he got involved in a lot of the primaries,” Heller said.
McConnell is up for re-election in 2014 in Kentucky, a state where DeMint has made his influence known. In 2010, DeMint backed Rand Paul — now Kentucky’s junior senator — over the objections of the state’s party brass, including McConnell.
DeMint has a habit of making those bets, even though his success rate is 50-50 at best.
Nevadans know DeMint as the figure Sharron Angle, who challenged Reid for his Senate seat in 2010, infamously had “juice with.” DeMint supported Angle through the primary — though he delayed his official endorsement until just after her win — and mobilized the national fundraising and advertising effort that put her within striking distance of Reid.
Over the past two cycles, DeMint dotted the map with similar efforts in Senate races to displace Democrats and oust Republicans he considered not conservative enough.
He struck gold with Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. But he struck out with Angle, Joe Miller in Alaska, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
Democrats trumpeted those losses, especially those accompanied by Democratic gains in 2012, as proof that voters rejected DeMint’s brand of ultra-conservatism.
Yet, when DeMint walks out of the Senate, he will neither be walking out of the arena nor severing political ties with the party. He is taking over the helm of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank most famous for being a force behind Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America.”
With a recognized think tank under his charge, and free from the Senate’s procedural strictures, DeMint has the opportunity to become an even more influential outsider (think Grover Norquist-style), especially when it comes to elections.
And within the walls of Congress, one of his mentees may soon pick up his torch.
“Someone will fill the void,” Heller said. “It’ll be a short-term void.”