On a host of issues, including taxes and healthcare, the Republican Party has moved sharply to the right in recent years. And in the Senate, that rightward shift can be largely attributed to one man: Jim DeMint.
DeMint, the junior Republican Senator from South Carolina, is consistently ranked among the most conservative members of Congress and considered one of the forefathers of the Tea Party movement. After serving three terms in the House of Representatives, DeMint was elected to the Senate in 2004, succeeding Democrat Fritz Hollings.
Since his election, DeMint has championed numerous conservative goals, including the repeal of President Obama’s signature healthcare reform bill, reinstituting school-led prayer and a host of socially conservative issues. (DeMint has famously stated that open homosexuals and unmarried sexually active people should not be allowed to teach in public schools.) A firm believer in term limits, DeMint plans to retire from the Senate in 2016 after completing his second term.
Nonetheless, DeMint’s influence in the body will continue well past his tenure.
Through his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which this cycle has raised more than twice as much money as any other Senator’s PAC, DeMint has helped elect a number of like-minded conservatives. In 2010, DeMint backed stalwart conservative Senate candidates like Mike Lee of Utah, Ken Buck of Colorado and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware.
That year, DeMint played a key role in the successful campaigns of Sen. Lee, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Johnson replaced a Democrat, but the other four won seats held by more moderate Republicans, moving the caucus to the right. (Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was a Democrat when he was defeated in the 2010 primaries, but had served as a centrist Republican since 1981.)
DeMint’s confrontational endorsements were often at odds with leaders of his own party and a number of his candidates lost, whereas less confrontational nominees would have likely prevailed (including Buck and O’Donnell).
Regardless of his win-loss record, DeMint’s impact on the Senate has already been profound. The five Senators he helped elect are now among the most conservative — and vocal — in Congress. They are frequent guests on news shows and have remarkable opportunities to further shape the political landscape. Both Toomey and Rubio were frequently mentioned as Vice Presidential possibilities, while Paul is likely to run for President in 2016 (if President Obama is reelected). And Lee, a Tea Party firebrand, is a building a national base of his own.
DeMint’s influence on the Senate and politics in general is only likely to grow in the coming years. This cycle, he has endorsed a number of conservative candidates for Senate, including Mark Neumann of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas. Moreover, although DeMint is sixty years old, Rubio and Lee are both 40, Paul is 49 and Toomey is 51. (Additionally, Cruz is 41.) They could certainly remain in politics for decades more, preaching DeMint’s philosophy.
“Our goal was not to bring any more wishy-washy people into the Senate as Republicans, and that goal has been accomplished,” DeMint said recently to the New York Times. Indeed, the Senate, regardless of whether it switches to Republican control in November or beyond, will bear DeMint’s mark for generations to come.