On Election Day, Jim DeMint usually goes to an afternoon movie with his wife. “I’ve been in a few squeakers and it helps to get my mind off things,” says the Republican senator from South Carolina. “I turn off my cell phone and try to forget.”
This year was different. “There was too much going on,” he says. “I stayed up until about two in the morning, watching the returns come in.” DeMint wasn’t talking about his own race, which was no squeaker this time: He won a second term with 62 percent of the vote. Instead, he was referring to the GOP Senate candidates whose campaigns he had encouraged and nurtured. “It’s like watching your children play sports,” he says. “It’s more nerve-wracking for you than it is for them.”
DeMint supported enough conservatives to man a football team: eleven candidates, whose general-election campaigns received nearly $7.5 million from his political-action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), as well as his personal campaign account. That may not sound like a lot when total spending on 2010 Senate races amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet DeMint played an outsized role in shaping the GOP field. By involving himself in primaries, he helped create the Tea Party environment that dominated the midterm storyline.
It would be too much to call DeMint a senatorial kingmaker, but he may have been the GOP’s single most important national figure in elections that saw his party gain six Senate seats. Without him, it’s possible that Republicans still would have won races in Florida and Pennsylvania — but that the victors would have been Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter rather than Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey. That’s quite an accomplishment for the junior senator of a small southern state.
DeMint’s determination was born of disappointment. When he was first elected to the Senate in 2004, DeMint joined the majority party. Two years later, GOP losses relegated Republicans to the chamber’s minority. After the elections of 2008, the GOP caucus dwindled to its smallest size since the 1970s. DeMint became convinced that his party had to take steps to revive its conservative traditions, starting with the selection of candidates. “I helped the National Republican Senatorial Committee raise a lot of money,” he says. “But I heard so many people say that they weren’t going to give another dime until Republicans started acting like Republicans.” His solution was to establish the SCF.
By the spring of 2009, at the dawn of the Age of Obama, plenty of Republican senators feared new setbacks and deeper losses. DeMint wasn’t one of them. He sparked controversy by forsaking compromise. “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs,” he said. Time magazine called this quote “astonishing” and proceeded to publish a provocative cover — one that labeled Republicans an “endangered species.” This cover, which appeared on the May 18, 2009, edition, may go down in history as a modern version of the Chicago Tribune’s infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.
DeMint made his comment in the context of endorsing Pat Toomey, a conservative former congressman who had announced a primary challenge against liberal GOP senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Specter reacted by switching parties. As Specter crossed the aisle, several Republicans lashed out at DeMint. “We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough,” complained Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolinian. “If we pursue a party . . . that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing.”
#page#In Pennsylvania, however, Toomey proved that the strategy of moderation at any cost wasn’t the only path to victory for Republicans. In the general election he defeated Democratic congressman Joe Sestak (who had beaten Specter in a primary), 51 percent to 49 percent. “Jim DeMint was a supporter of my campaign early on and his personal and financial support meant a lot to me,” says Toomey. “Not only did he support my candidacy when many were sitting on the fence, his support never wavered.” The SCF donated more than $330,000 to Toomey’s campaign.
DeMint’s other bold move was to get behind Marco Rubio in Florida at a time when the NRSC was backing Gov. Charlie Crist, another liberal Republican who was seen as highly electable. Unlike Specter, Crist didn’t bolt the party right away. His departure took nearly a year, and when it came, Rubio was thrust into an unpredictable three-way race that included a last-minute effort by Bill Clinton to persuade Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek to drop out and endorse Crist. In the end, Rubio won with a 49 percent plurality.
DeMint’s financial support of more than $839,000 from the SCF and his personal campaign account contributed to the victory. His moral support may have mattered just as much. Before Rubio spoke at his Election Night party in Coral Gables, his campaign played a montage of video highlights from the previous year and a half. One clip showed Neil Cavuto of Fox News badgering DeMint about Rubio’s chances. As DeMint defended Rubio, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Toomey and Rubio were DeMint’s earliest and riskiest moves — and the ones that may have the biggest payoff for conservatives in the future. Yet DeMint didn’t always have a Midas touch. In November 2009, the SCF endorsed California state assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who lost the GOP nomination to businesswoman Carly Fiorina. (In the general election, Democratic senator Barbara Boxer beat Fiorina, 52 percent to 43 percent.)
A few months later, DeMint endorsed another conservative state legislator, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, in a GOP primary against Dan Coats, a former Republican senator who was coming out of retirement. Coats won easily. Yet there was a silver lining. In May, when Republican congressman Mark Souder resigned abruptly following an adultery scandal, Stutzman jumped into the succession contest. He was a conservative favorite, due in part to the allies he had made during his unsuccessful bid for the Senate. In a crowded field, he captured the GOP nomination. “DeMint’s endorsement was huge for us,” says Stutzman, who went on to win the general election and now will represent the Fort Wayne area in Congress.
As he campaigned, DeMint kept saying that he was looking for Republicans who would come to Washington and “join the fight, not the club.” Candidates who refused to swear off earmarks, for instance, also swore off the possibility of SCF funding. DeMint’s line inspired Ron Johnson, the businessman who took on Democratic senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. When Johnson introduced himself to GOP senators at a weekly lunch in the Capitol, he pointed to DeMint and said that he also wished to join the fight, not the club. The two men had not met previously. DeMint informed Johnson that he was in fact speaking to the club. DeMint also directed more than $215,000 in SCF funds to Johnson, who ousted Feingold, 52 percent to 47 percent.
#page#Not all DeMint-backed candidates fared as well. In Colorado, DeMint supported Weld County district attorney Ken Buck against Jane Norton, a former lieutenant governor who had the NRSC’s help. Buck edged out Norton in an August primary and became the biggest recipient of SCF cash, accepting more than $926,000 from DeMint’s committee. DeMint provided an additional $250,000 from his personal campaign account to boost the Colorado GOP’s get-out-the-vote efforts. None of this delivered enough bang for Buck: He lost by less than a percentage point to Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. This was perhaps DeMint’s biggest error of the 2010 cycle: Buck was certainly conservative, but Norton wasn’t appreciably less so. Colorado’s GOP primary squabble was in no way comparable to Toomey vs. Specter or Rubio vs. Crist. And if Norton had secured the nomination, she might have enjoyed a different fate on November 2.
Delaware is another state that may have slipped out of the GOP’s grasp this year, when Republicans nominated Christine O’Donnell over moderate congressman Mike Castle. DeMint had announced his support for O’Donnell, but only days before her upset primary victory. His endorsement followed Sarah Palin’s and probably made little difference in the outcome. Once he had embraced O’Donnell, however, he followed through with money, giving her more than $535,000 through the SCF and sending another $250,000 from his own reelection account to the state party. “I wanted to do everything possible to give her a chance,” says DeMint. “But she was chewed up and spit out by the Republican party before she found her footing. When your own party discredits you, it’s a big hill to climb.” O’Donnell lost to Democrat Christopher Coons, 57 percent to 40 percent.
In Alaska, the SCF stayed out of the primary. After Joe Miller won it, beating incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski, DeMint channeled $727,000 to Miller — and in the process managed to get under the skin of Murkowski, who ran as an independent write-in candidate. “He’s bought into the Jim DeMint mentality,” she said of Miller, referring to his opposition to earmarks, which Alaska politicians, including Murkowski, have used without reservation. When Republican senators refused to strip Murkowski of her committee assignments for trying to defeat a candidate duly nominated by GOP voters — an example of “the club” at work — DeMint was almost alone in condemning the decision. “Joe Miller won his primary fair and square,” he says. “I’m not happy with how our party responded.” At press time, the result of the Alaska election remained uncertain, with write-in votes yet to be counted.
Other SCF-backed losers included Sharron Angle in Nevada ($730,000 in SCF funds), John Raese in West Virginia ($113,000), and Dino Rossi in Washington ($374,000). Winners included Mike Lee in Utah ($319,000) and Rand Paul in Kentucky ($285,000).
DeMint’s visibility in the 2010 elections has led to speculation that he aspires to the presidency. In a January interview, I asked him whether he would run for the White House in 2012. “I don’t plan to,” he said, in a classic formulation that can be both honest and open-ended. The morning after the 2010 elections, he was much clearer: “No,” he said. “I’ve gotten a few calls about it and they’re humbling. But when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a president.”
Instead, he sees a dissident member of the club, ready for the next fight — but with a few more teammates.