Senator Jim DeMint is all smiles. Ted Cruz’s upset victory in Texas’s Republican Senate primary means the conservative wing of the GOP conference, a bloc the second-term lawmaker from South Carolina shepherds, will almost certainly increase its ranks.
“This confirms that there is a new political reality,” DeMint tells National Review Online in an interview in his office. “The people who are winning, for the Senate particularly, are those who are telling Americans the truth.”
Political observers expect Cruz, should he win in November, to join DeMint’s coalition of tea-party favorites, which includes Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, among others.
DeMint agrees that Cruz would be an ally, but he emphasizes that he is looking for an ideological partner, not a political loyalist. Cruz’s rise has not whetted DeMint’s ambitions. “I have no intention of running for leader,” he says, when asked whether he will challenge Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader. “I’ve been a leader ever since I walked in the Senate door. You don’t have to be elected to lead.”
Besides, DeMint says, McConnell sees the signals coming out of Texas, Indiana, and other states where tea-party candidates have won. And as a savvy operator, McConnell is probably not looking to buck the newcomers.
“Elected leaders carry an important administrative function, but they are going to reflect the conference,” DeMint tells me. “If the conference is moving in the right direction, our leaders will move in the right direction.”
A week ago, DeMint traveled to Texas, where he stumped for Cruz alongside former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Standing with the youthful contender and Palin in Houston in front of thousands of voters was “pretty emotional,” DeMint recalls. “For so long, the party bosses controlled all the money and picked the candidates, pretty much deciding who they would run as a Republican.” These days, thanks to conservative activists and the rise of the Tea Party, “that has totally changed.”
Last summer, DeMint was one of the first conservative leaders to endorse Cruz, who was then an unknown. DeMint weighed in early to send a message to his fellow Republicans. “There is not enough urgency around here,” he says, commenting on Capitol Hill’s ongoing fiscal debate. “But when I got to know Ted, it became clear that he is ready to make the hard choices — and they’ll need to be made.”
DeMint already has a legislative plan ready for Cruz’s arrival. “If we get the [Senate] majority and the White House, we have got to pass a budget that sets up the structure, through reconciliation, to repeal Obamacare by killing the mandate,” he says. He also wants to “totally redo our tax code,” put “Medicare on a sustainable course,” and “deal with Social Security.” But should Republicans win then stumble, “it’d be betrayal to our country.”
“We need to do it in the first 100 days,” DeMint says. “[Mitt] Romney has told me, face to face, that he knows that he needs to get these things done right away. He is looking at this as a one-term proposition.”
DeMint acknowledges that reform faces many hurdles, but come January, the 60-year-old senator is optimistic that he’ll have a slew of tea-party senators ready to help. “Ted Cruz, Richard Mourdock, Deb Fischer, hopefully Mark Neumann, these folks will hopefully come in and bring a lot of closet conservatives in the Republican party out in the open,” DeMint chuckles. “Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee — they have the sense of urgency. But they are outnumbered.”
“If we get four or five more like them, it will embolden a lot of [Senate] Republicans who are conservative at heart, but got into a business-as-usual rut and don’t want to rock the boat,” DeMint says. “Now, if they see the boat rocking, I think it might help us.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.