Joe Miller (Alaska), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Ken Buck (Colorado), Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), Marco Rubio (Florida), Dino Rossi (Washington), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Mike Lee (Utah) — these are just a few of the Reaganite insurgents with whom Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) hopes to work in the upper chamber come January. Should they win in November, DeMint predicts, this new crop of conservatives will help to push the GOP back toward the party’s principled, free-market roots.
“These candidates have gotten the message,” DeMint says in an interview with National Review Online. “They understand that if we get the majority, and we don’t do what we said we would, then we’re dead as a party — and should be.”
GOP incumbents, DeMint warns, should pay close attention to what is happening around the country. Even if there is a Republican sweep, he says, “many Americans fear that senior members of our party will go back to focusing on getting earmarks for their states, that we will betray them again. But with ten to 15 new allies in the Senate, which I think we’ll have, that will not be tolerated any more.”
Even if conservatives make major gains, DeMint says, he will not challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a Senate leadership contest. Still, he pledges that he will do his best to change the direction of the party with the help of however many new colleagues he may have. But don’t expect him to try to corral freshman Republicans into a DeMint bloc — “I’d like to throw that idea into the trash can,” he says. “It’s simply not true. These candidates are leaders in their own right. I’m supporting them, because they’re not running on some consultant’s talking points. They’re running on principle.” Jockeying for a leadership position, he says, is not his focus. “What I’m interested in is turning this country away from its fiscal cliff — and for the first time since Reagan, I think that we have a chance for real action, not just political posturing.”
Still, without naming names, DeMint remains critical of many establishment GOP senators. Earlier this summer, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (Miss.) told the Washington Post that the Senate does not “need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples.” Party leaders, he said, need to move quickly to “co-opt” any rabble-rousing conservatives who may find their way to the marble halls of Washington. DeMint, with a hint of disgust, says, “We need to realize that Trent Lott was speaking for many senior Republicans.”
But some of the GOP elders, DeMint notes, understand the stakes, and they may be open to working for a fresh conservative coalition. There are some “good aspects,” he says, to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) winning his primary last month. “McCain is a real opponent of earmarks, he supports a balanced budget amendment, and, during the campaign, he really addressed border security. If those things stay in place, we’ll be fine. I’ll work with all Republicans, and I can work with John McCain.”
Try as they may, big-spending Democrats — and Republicans — will not rule if the “people continue to make their voice heard,” DeMint predicts. The South Carolinian points to Joe Miller’s victory in Alaska’s GOP Senate primary as the most recent example of what he calls a “stunning American awakening” that may force Congress to change its ways.
Even DeMint’s PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has funneled millions to primary challengers this cycle, was surprised by Miller’s out-of-nowhere win. “Joe was certainly the candidate we supported philosophically, but it did not appear that he was in play,” DeMint explains. “It was, obviously, a mistake on our part. I underestimated the movement in Alaska.” But he couldn’t be more pleased about the outcome.
What does he make of Glenn Beck’s Washington rally and the tea parties? “Everywhere people are pulling together and connecting the dots,” DeMint says. “They see a fiscally out-of-control, immoral federal government that is destroying our culture, our economy, and our opportunity. That [belief] is solidifying in this country, and I think Reagan Democrats, independents, and conservative Republicans are coming together to pick candidates — sometimes it’s the least bad candidate, but sometimes, as with Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, there are people to get excited about.”
As we parted, DeMint was heading off to celebrate his 59th birthday. But he left me with a final thought: “This is not about me or the Senate Conservatives Fund. We are just a little bit of a catalyst, trying to raise the profile of some good candidates.”
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.