DeMint Vaults From Back Bench to Republican Kingmaker


While Sarah Palin gets most of the attention for having helped numerous unlikely candidates win Republican primaries this year, DeMint has emerged as an even bigger force

(Updates with comment from DeMint in seventh paragraph.)

By Lisa Lerer

(Bloomberg) — The phones wouldn't stop ringing yesterday at the Capitol Hill office of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, the day after Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell, one of his protégés, upset U.S. Representative Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware. DeMint was besieged with requests for television appearances and interviews.

While former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin gets most of the attention for having helped numerous unlikely candidates win Republican primaries this year, DeMint has emerged as an even bigger force.

The first-term senator and former marketing executive has vaulted from backbencher to political kingmaker. He's a recruiter, fundraiser, and agenda-setter, racking up electoral victories for Tea Party underdogs in Senate races across the country, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 20 issue.

In the process, he's rapidly building a power base in the Senate likely to exert huge influence on the national agenda next year. He's also angering some of his Republican colleagues, including Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush's political strategist.

They argue that O'Donnell and other "DeMint disciples," as former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi calls them, are so conservative and inexperienced that they aren't likely to win in November's general election. If that happens, they say, he will deny Republicans the 10 seats they needs to take control of the Senate.

Writing Off Delaware

"We've probably just written off Delaware, and we're shocked and disappointed about it," says Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican Capitol Hill aide.

DeMint, 59, doesn't care. He tells Bloomberg Businessweek "the best thing that could happen for business is complete gridlock" and that he wants to stop programs that violate his anti-Big Government ideology.

"What happens in the Senate is the Republicans sink to the lowest common denominator," he says, taking a quick break between TV appearances. "People want an alternative to some kind of watered-down Republican philosophy."

DeMint formed a political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, in late 2008 with the goal of backing candidates the national party was likely to ignore. The fund ranked Senate Republicans on how conservative they were. DeMint was the only one to score 100 percent; Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, came in at 79 percent.

Targeting Specter

His group first took aim at Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who often voted with Democrats. DeMint endorsed Specter's primary opponent, Pat Toomey, a former congressman known as a tax-cutter and fiscal hawk. Specter left the Republican Party a few days later to run as a Democrat; he lost in the state's primary in May.

That victory emboldened DeMint to take on other Republicans, starting with Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who decided to seek a U.S. Senate seat.

DeMint raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the former speaker of Florida's House speaker, Marco Rubio. In April, as polls showed Rubio running away with the race, Crist left the party to run for the Senate as an independent.

"Republicans would not have the wind at our backs if we stood up for candidates like Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist," DeMint says.

Money, Manpower

DeMint's money and manpower also helped roil Senate Republican Senate nomination contests in Colorado, Utah and Kentucky, along with Delaware. Of the 13 candidates he's endorsed, only three have lost. Last year he raised $1.3 million. This year his PAC has pulled in more than $4 million, says spokesman Matt Hoskins.

Even if Republicans fail to win control of the Senate, DeMint's importance is rising. "In the Senate, if you got a half-dozen people who follow you, you have a major movement going," says Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "The big threat is to Mitch McConnell."

DeMint says he doesn't want to challenge McConnell, or run for a leadership position. Still, says Baker, he is creating a "rival power center" that will move the party to the right.

The candidates he supported will owe DeMint a "certain obligation of support," Baker says. Senators up for re-election in 2012 won't want to cross DeMint and the Tea Party by compromising with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, fearing that would invite a primary challenge.

Immigration Issue

DeMint's opposition is sure to set back one of Obama's priorities for the second half of his term: overhauling immigration laws. DeMint opposed Bush's 2007 immigration plan, calling it "amnesty" for proposing to help some illegal immigrants attain lawful status in the U.S.

Tax policy is another area where DeMint could thwart the White House. In his book "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide into Socialism," DeMint advocates flat income-tax rates of 10 percent and 25percent. He would kill the corporate income tax and substitute an 8.5percent consumption tax.

He also talks of reviving a failed Bush plan to partially privatize Social Security—a program he considers "socialistic." The Federal Reserve is another area where DeMint and his troops are likely to take aim. He has repeatedly pushed for greater scrutiny of the central bank.

The first priority of the new conservative lawmakers, says DeMint, will be to stop new spending and repeal Obama's health-care legislation. "When we have a few who vote with the Obama agenda, it defines the whole Republican Party," DeMint says. "Win or lose, we are fighting for the right cause."

— With assistance from James Rowley, Patrick O'Connor and Jonathan D. Salant in Washington. Editors: Paula Dwyer, Don Frederick


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