By Ruth Conniff
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There might not be an elected leader who has embraced the partisan extremism of modern American politics more than Jim DeMint. Over the past few years, the tea party poster boy and junior United States Senator from South Carolina has become something of a cultish institution of right-wing radicalism.
Now, DeMint has officially gone rogue. Striking out on a one-man mission, the godfather of the tea party announced July 2 that he is forming a super PAC.
DeMint had already mastered the art of operating a hardcore conservative fundraising and political apparatus that existed outside the national Republican Party. Lording over his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC, DeMint had raised $17 million since 2009 to underwrite far-right underdog candidates in GOP primaries from Nebraska to Texas to Ohio to Wisconsin—and to the detriment of his own party when those candidates deemed too extreme by general election voters were vanquished by Democrats.
Because DeMint will formally sever ties with his Senate Conservatives Fund, it will allow the group to become a super PAC, meaning that it can take in unlimited donations. The new supergroup will be called Senate Conservatives Action.
“If we’re going to save this country, we have to elect more conservatives to the U.S. Senate,” he said in a statement about the new PAC. “Making the Senate Conservatives Fund independent of me will allow it do even more to elect the kind of leaders we need to repeal Obamacare and balance the budget.”
The work he’s done with his Senate Conservatives Fund has already turned him into a kingmaker in the Senate’s conservative conference. It has also has rankled his party leadership. But DeMint doesn’t seem to care.
At a fundraising dinner in South Carolina on May 19, he noted that he was in trouble with his party leadership over his recent antics. He chuckled that it was “good trouble to be in.”
For the GOP, this is the new normal.
Indeed, with his money and influence, DeMint has created an enclave in the Senate of likeminded warriors.
DeMint has term-limited himself from a re-election campaign in 2016. What does this and the formation of his super PAC likely mean for the next four years? That his belligerence is only going to get worse.
Around Washington, pundits and scorekeepers have been keeping a watchful eye on DeMint’s win-loss record. How it plays out is going to have an impact on the expansion of his crusade over the Senate. His super PAC will merely provide ammunition.
So far, though mixed, the results have been largely positive for him.
DeMint has already made the Senate careers of Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida, Utah’s Mike Lee and Pat Toomey in the Keystone State (though he couldn’t get Joe Miller elected in Alaska or Christine O’Donnell elected in Delaware).
But in mid-May, the Senator’s anointed candidate in Nebraska, Don Sternberg, came in third place in a primary bid. Republicans there blamed DeMint’s outside spending in the race as disturbing to Nebraska voters.
Down in Texas, where DeMint is supporting Ted Cruz in a heated runoff election for U.S. Senate set for July 31, Governor Rick Perry remarked that Lone Star Staters don’t need “out-of-state interests groups” like DeMint’s PAC dumping in money and telling them who they should vote for.
But that has long been DeMint’s prerogative. It is largely because DeMint represents South Carolina that allows him the ability to act as something of an at-large member of the Senate, swooping from state to state and ingratiating himself into regions outside his constituency with zero blowback from voters back home.
There is no question that Jim DeMint is the most popular politician in South Carolina.
“Because ideology is enough in this state, you don’t have to influence public policy anymore; you don’t have to bring any money in, all you have to do is stake out these crusader positions, which he does, and that’s enough to get you elected,” says Limestone College political science Professor John Crangle, who has run the South Carolina chapter of Common Cause for twenty-five years.
In a way, Senator Tea Party is largely a product of a power shift in Congress that has moved dramatically over the past 40 years away from the South and toward the North and the West, Crangle says. Four decades ago, when the Palmetto State was the heart of the Democratic Solid South, many key committee chairmen were from the former Confederacy, in large part based on their seniority.
That’s no longer the case.
In South Carolina, four of the state’s six congressmen are GOP freshmen who crashed into Washington on the 2010 tea party wave. DeMint wrote an open letter to conservative congressional newcomers that year and suggested they turn down committee assignments because accepting them might lead to being beholden to the leadership for future votes.
Across the country, as far-right, no-compromise extremism continues to infect the political discourse, it should come as no surprise that DeMint has become a scion for that pathology.
The irony is that he might not have always wanted to be such a radical. Until, that is, he found out that being one could haul in a major personal payoff.
Back in 1999, when DeMint was first elected to the U.S. House, he served with Democratic U.S. Representative John Spratt, who had represented the heart of South Carolina since the early 1980s and was known as the dean of the state’s Congressional delegation.
When DeMint came to D.C., he called Spratt and asked if he could stop by the office to talk. During the meeting, Spratt recalls DeMint telling him that he hadn’t come to Washington with designs on being seen as a partisan politician.
“I thought he was saying to me that he was going to be a moderate Republican, not an extremely conservative Republican,” Spratt tells The Progressive. “And for a while he might have been.”
That behavior didn’t last.
“It wasn’t long before he was voting his own choices, his own pattern, and he was far more conservative than I thought he was going to be,” Spratt says. “I think he decided somewhere along the way that this didn’t lead to anywhere in particular, that he wanted to get national recognition and stake out a claim himself for a certain part of the political process and he needed to build a base—his own base. It was not apparent what he’d done until a few years ago when he began making PAC contributions to any number of different members, which suggested that he was trying to win their favor or support.”
Spratt chaired the House Budget Committee until 2010, when he was defeated by a political neophyte with the backing of DeMint.
Senator Jim DeMint has come a long way.
Corey Hutchins is a reporter for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times and the author of The Accidental Candidate: The Rise and Fall of Alvin Greene.