For all of Washington’s political polarization, the U.S. Senate remains a clubby place. Sure, lawmakers talk smack about the unparalleled malevolence of the opposition, but there is, in general, a high degree of respect for the institution, its members, and its time-honored Way of Doing Things. While the House is known for its ideological cowboys, demagogues, and revolutionaries, the Senate is where bright lines and rough edges tend to get smoothed out in the name of statesmanship and legislative compromise.
Clearly, no one told this to Jim DeMint. During his first term, South Carolina’s junior senator has made quite the name for himself. Armed with a courtly demeanor, a blandly pleasant visage, and a butter-melting drawl, he has set about flaying Democrats with a fervor that causes even some of his Republican colleagues to cringe. (His July call for the GOP to make health care Obama’s “Waterloo” prompted multiple Republican lawmakers to distance themselves or flatly criticize him.) But more notable than DeMint’s savaging of the opposition has been his savaging of his own people. Perched on the far-right edge of his conference--he was the only senator to speak at the September 12 tea party on Capitol Hill--DeMint has spent recent years conducting something of a party purity crusade. He has repeatedly delayed or derailed legislation supported by the bulk of his conference. He has sought new rules on how leadership and committee seats are doled out. And he has joined forces with from-the-fringe activists to turn his leadership PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), into a renegade funding operation that often works at cross-purposes with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Among the “rock-solid conservatives” SCF is championing this cycle are Marco Rubio in Florida (over the NRSC-backed Charlie Crist), Michael Williams in Texas (over presumed party favorite David Dewhurst), and Chuck DeVore in California (over establishment pick Carly Fiorina). His PAC, DeMint explains in an “About Us” video on its website, is for everyone “tired of Republicans acting like Democrats.”
The irony of DeMint’s revolutionary zeal is that it didn’t surface until he left the rough-and-tumble House for the Senate. The genial, low-key Southerner was a well-regarded team player during his three terms representing South Carolina’s fourth district (the most conservative in the state, naturally). Elected president of the 1998 Republican freshmen, the former marketing exec proved particularly useful in helping then–Conference Chairman J.C. Watts craft the party’s message.
DeMint’s first two years in the Senate, following his 2004 election, were largely frictionless as well. But the 2006 Democratic takeover convinced him that the GOP had lost its way. Tapped to head the Republican Steering Committee, DeMint renounced earmarks and began agitating for an overhaul of the practice--a move that did not endear him to colleagues. A major turning point, as one former GOP Hill staffer tells it, came in summer 2007, during the debate on ethics reform. The majority and minority leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, had hammered out a bill they felt their members could live with. DeMint, however, was blocking the measure from going to conference unless Reid agreed to include his provision for earmark reform. Faced with the prospect of one rogue Republican (a freshman no less) gumming up the works, Reid thumbed his nose at the entire minority: Circumventing the conference process, he sent the bill back to House leaders to tinker with, and then return directly to him via the “ping-pong” parliamentary maneuver now being used to move health care reform. (In fact, a Senate Democratic aide credits DeMint’s ethics-reform shenanigans with reviving the rarely employed tactic.) Cut out of final negotiations, Republicans lost all further input in the legislation. Many in the conference--leadership included--were furious with DeMint. As one Republican aide recalls, a handful of members felt compelled to remind the senator, “Look, the enemy is over there.”
Unbowed, DeMint not only kept preaching against earmarks but also aimed to slow the legislative process in toto. By mid-2008, even Republican lawmakers were publicly grousing about his stalling of bills that enjoyed broad bipartisan support, such as President Bush’s global aids initiative. (In one instance, DeMint irked colleagues by demanding a Friday vote on the aids bill, then not bothering to show up for it.) "DEMINT PANNED BY GOP,” blared the headline of a July 16 piece in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, featuring criticism from Republicans Richard Burr, Olympia Snowe, and George Voinovich, as well as an anonymous colleague’s slap: “He’s not the minority leader, and on more than one occasion, he’s acted like he is.” When the 2008 elections dealt Republicans a second round of congressional losses, DeMint decided to take drastic action. He drew up a list of proposed rule changes--including term limits for leaders and members of the mighty Appropriations Committee--to be addressed at a closed-door conference meeting. As the former Hill staffer recalls it, at the last minute, DeMint realized the riskiness of his plan and asked that his proposal not be presented. But the leadership, fed-up with DeMint’s rabble-rousing, brushed aside his request, leaving the senator to squirm as his slate of rules was shot down.
Afterward, DeMint fell into a funk. “There was a period of time after that where he was pretty depressed and eating lunch a lot by himself and didn’t really have any friends in the Capitol,” recalls the former staffer. But soon, DeMint and his people began casting about for like-minded conservatives he could bond with. Traveling around the country communing with the grassroots and hawking his book Saving Freedom, DeMint once more found comfort, acceptance--and opportunity. “It really opened up some doors for him and sort of showed him this was something to pursue and push,” says former DeMint speechwriter Mike Connolly. Realizing he “was never going to be part of the club,” recalls Connolly, the senator had to make a choice. “He looks at himself and looks at the party and asks, ‘What can I do? Am I just here to be the right flank and try to influence a few little amendments here and there, or am I really going to try and change’” the conference? Thus was cemented DeMint’s role: perpetual burr in the butt of his party’s leadership.
In many ways, of course, DeMint is of great service to Republican leaders, especially during bare-knuckle brawls like the one over health care. Still, by aggressively backing conservatives against the establishment choices in some of the biggest midterm races, DeMint has raised the stakes for himself and his conservative brethren. If folks like DeVore and Rubio triumph come fall, DeMint’s stock will soar, and movement conservatives will gain major leverage in the ongoing struggle for the GOP’s soul. If, however, DeMint’s horses fail to perform, the equation flips. The elements of the party who have been warning against a shrinking tent are likely to ratchet up efforts to shove “rock-solid conservatives” into the shadows. And DeMint could once again find himself eating lunch alone.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.