When Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina decided to endorse Pat Toomey’s GOP primary challenge to Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania last year, plenty of Republicans seemed eager to denounce him for shrinking the party. “Some conservatives would rather lose than be seen as compromising on what they regard as inviolable principles,” grumbled Texas senator John Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine contributed an op-ed to the New York Times. GOP moderates, she warned, “often get the distinct feeling that [they’re] no longer welcome in the tribe.” Even DeMint’s fellow travelers at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal piled on: “Republicans shouldn’t follow South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and welcome Mr. Specter’s defection as an ideological cleansing.”
If DeMint once looked like a crotchety conservative who was satisfied to serve in a dwindling and disgruntled minority, he now appears more like the prophet of a coming resurgence. Not long ago, many Republicans would have been content to pick up a mere handful of Senate seats in the midterm elections this year. That began to change with Scott Brown’s startling special-election victory in Massachusetts. Today, there’s talk of sweeping gains not just for the GOP in general, but specifically for the conservatives within it. Since I wrote this article at the beginning of the year, DeMint and his endorsements have become more and more influential. His backing of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware marked the end of an extraordinary primary season for the South Carolina senator.
Even if Republicans don’t take control of the chamber — a hard task, even in a favorable political environment — they could give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats a genuine scare. DeMint’s particular gamble in Pennsylvania may pay off handsomely: In January, a Rasmussen poll of likely voters showed that Toomey has surged from underdog to favorite. He currently leads Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated Specter in the Democratic primary, by six points.
“This is part of an American awakening,” says DeMint. “If people want to take back their government, they can do it. No state is out of play.” DeMint is now positioning himself as the Great Awakener — a national leader of a highly decentralized tea-party movement whose activist energy may hold the key to turning 2010 into another 1994 for the GOP.
The 58-year-old DeMint grew up in Greenville, S.C., with a single mother who operated the DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum in their house. When one of her students lacked a partner, his mother would ring a bell. This was to summon DeMint, who would have to fill in, even if it meant dancing with a man. “Scarred me for life,” he jokes. Later, DeMint became the drummer for a rock-and-roll cover band called Salt & Pepper, so named because half of its members were white and half were black — a bit of integration in a South Carolina that was still escaping the legacy of Jim Crow. “I could have been a rock star, except I had no voice or talent,” says DeMint. He did, however, have a first-rate cackle: When his band performed the beach-rock classic “Wipe Out,” originally recorded by the Surfaris, DeMint provided the wild laugh that kicks off the song.
DeMint earned degrees at the University of Tennessee and Clemson, joined an advertising company, and eventually founded his own marketing firm. He says he was too busy to think about politics — it rarely entered his mind. “I had kids and a business,” he says. “I didn’t even know who my congressman was.” Then, toward the end of the 1980s, he ran a focus group that asked the residents of a public-housing development to describe the challenges they faced. “One woman told us, ‘Stop paying our babies to have babies,’” he recalls. It dawned on him that many social ills were the unintended consequences of government policies.
A few years later, in 1992, Bob Inglis walked into his office. They didn’t know each other, but Inglis was thinking about running for Congress, and he sought DeMint’s advice. They struck up a friendship, and DeMint became an adviser. Inglis won and served three terms. When he stepped down in 1998, DeMint decided to pursue the vacant House seat. “I was 47 years old and I had never run for anything,” he says. (The memoir-like first chapter of his recently published book, Saving Freedom, is called “From Normal to Politician.”) During the GOP primary, he campaigned for abolishing the tax code, privatizing Social Security, and passing a right-to-life amendment. He finished second — and did well enough to force a runoff, which he won against a candidate who was seen as a favorite of religious conservatives.
In the House, DeMint earned a reputation as a free trader, even though he hailed from a state whose representatives traditionally had pushed for textile protectionism. He says that his trade votes — for presidential trade-promotion authority and closer ties with China — were some of the most difficult he has cast. “Voters had a very negative perception of trade,” he says. “I took a lot of heat.” This regional apostasy earned him a primary challenger in 2002. DeMint survived that threat and made good on a promise to serve no more than three terms.
In 2004, he ran for the Senate. Once again, he finished second in the GOP primary, behind former governor David Beasley, and went on to win a runoff. Then he captured the seat that retiring Democrat Ernest Hollings had occupied for nearly four decades. This year, DeMint is running for re-election and does not appear to face serious opposition.
As a senator, DeMint has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in Washington. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 98.4 percent. No other senator has a higher mark. In August, a reporter for the New York Times sneered at him as “a back-bencher with little influence in Washington’s corridors of power” — a sure sign that his influence was in fact growing. The criticism came in the wake of a mini-controversy in which DeMint demonstrated a knack for getting under the skin of Democrats, including President Obama.
Last summer, on a conference call with conservative activists, DeMint discussed ways to block the nationalization of health care. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo, it will break him,” he said. An audio clip of the comment became a sensation on left-wing blogs. The White House had a fit — or at least thought it had found a useful villain. Obama quoted the line in a speech and condemned it as an example of irresponsible Republican obstructionism. A few of DeMint’s colleagues suggested that he stick to a script that called for criticisms of congressional leaders such as Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, but not Obama, who at the time was seen as bulletproof. DeMint ignored their advice. “My point was that we could break his momentum, his rampaging agenda toward overspending and debt,” he says. “I wanted to stop the president so that he would work with us rather than steamroll us.”
The skirmish over this metaphor seems only to have energized the South Carolinian. On September 12, when a swarm of tea-party activists descended on Washington, DeMint was the only senator to address them. “Welcome to Waterloo!” he said to a cheering crowd. “We must stop this government takeover of health care.”
DeMint has opened other fronts in his fight against the Obama administration. One is in Honduras, where a constitutional crisis led the military to depose the president last summer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “coup.” DeMint, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasn’t so sure. But he didn’t have any special expertise in Honduras or its laws. A member of his staff suggested that he contact a Honduran-American whom many conservatives in Washington already knew, at least by reputation: Miguel Estrada. President Bush had selected him for the federal bench in 2001, but Democrats filibustered his nomination. Estrada, a U.S. citizen, lived in Honduras until he was 17. Now a lawyer in private practice, he was following events in his native land closely.
DeMint and Estrada had not met previously, but soon Estrada found himself in the senator’s office. They pored over Honduran legal documents, which Estrada had located on government websites and translated. Estrada persuaded the senator that the Hondurans had ousted their president legally, in order to prevent a despotic power grab. “We did our homework,” says DeMint. Yet the Obama administration continued to criticize what had taken place. DeMint responded by blocking confirmation votes on a pair of nominees: Arturo Valenzuela for assistant secretary of state for Western-hemisphere relations and Thomas A. Shannon for ambassador to Brazil.
Then, in September, DeMint planned his own fact-finding mission to Honduras — only to find himself thwarted by Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee. Even though the committee’s Democrats had spent record amounts on their own international travel (according to a Boston Globe analysis), Kerry refused to release funds for DeMint’s trip. DeMint went anyway, under the auspices of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “When we got down there, it was obvious that this was no military coup,” says DeMint. “We didn’t see soldiers patrolling the presidential palace.” The spat with Kerry generated additional publicity for DeMint and his views on what was happening in Honduras.
The story has a happy ending. Hillary Clinton and the State Department eventually came around, however grudgingly. DeMint let the votes on Valenzuela and Shannon go forward. Honduras held new elections in November and inaugurated a new president in January, with the approval of the U.S. government. “The senator kept the administration honest,” says Estrada. “He was invaluable.”
DeMint’s next dustup with the White House came in the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas. DeMint had prevented a vote on Erroll Southers, Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), on the grounds that Southers had refused to answer questions about plans to unionize airport screeners. After the bomb plot, liberals hoped DeMint would cave in to a public that demanded the swift confirmation of a TSA chief. DeMint went through another round of criticism from all of the usual sources — a New York Times editorial called his position “wrongheaded” and “destructive” — but he held firm. On January 20, Southers pulled his name from consideration.
This was the day after Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. If the timing wasn’t a sheer coincidence, it was an early indication of how much Washington’s political dynamics changed when the GOP cracked the Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. In the months ahead, DeMint probably will pick new battles with the Obama administration — but his greatest influence may come in shaping the course of the 2010 Senate elections. His objective is not merely to defeat Democrats, but to elect conservatives.
He’ll do it through the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), the political-action committee he founded in response to recent GOP failures. “I was one of the top fundraisers for the NRSC,” says DeMint. “But when I’d make phone calls, people kept telling me that they weren’t going to give another dime until Republicans started acting like Republicans.” DeMint figured they would give to conservatives, however, and he was right: In 2009, the SCF raised more than $1.3 million, which it is now directing toward conservatives within the Republican party, often to the consternation of the GOP’s Washington establishment.
The first sign of DeMint’s willingness to buck his more cautious colleagues came when he decided to support Toomey over Specter. A few weeks later, on the day the NRSC formally endorsed Florida governor Charlie Crist for his state’s Republican Senate nomination, DeMint met with Marco Rubio, who had already announced his candidacy. “When I heard Marco talk about his principles, it was clear to me that this was someone we would want here in the Senate,” says DeMint. Crist, by contrast, had warmly endorsed Obama’s stimulus spending and even hugged the president at a political rally. Rubio was little known, even though he had served as speaker of the house in Florida’s legislature. One survey showed him trailing Crist by 35 points. DeMint endorsed him anyway. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I may have caused others to give Marco a look,” he says. That’s exactly what happened. Rubio grabbed the spotlight in a primary contest that Crist thought he had locked up. Polls now show Rubio more than ten points ahead of his rivals, Democrat Kendrick Meek and Crist, who is running as an independent.
DeMint ruffled feathers in other campaigns. In California, he backed Chuck DeVore, a GOP state assemblyman, even though many Republicans had gotten behind former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. (Former congressman Tom Campbell was also in the race.) In Texas, DeMint called for the election of Michael Williams in the event that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a candidate for governor, made good on a promise to resign from her office. (She did not.) He searched for other opportunities as well. It was possible to imagine the SCF backing insurgent Republicans in Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. “In November, the country will move back toward conservative principles,” says DeMint. “We don’t have to settle for milquetoast Republicans who don’t care about anything but getting elected — and we’ll be kicking ourselves if there are states in which we don’t run real conservatives.”
A year and a half ago, Republicans were despondent about their electoral prospects. Last summer and fall, they turned hopeful. Now they’re bullish. If 2010 turns out to be the kind of year they currently anticipate, Jim DeMint and his conservative allies may enjoy the last laugh. Don’t be surprised if it sounds like the manic start to that song he used to play years ago — “Wipe Out.”
— John J. Miller is National Review’s national correspondent. This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2010, issue.