December 7, 2012

DeMint to resign, head for think tank

The departure of Sen. Jim DeMint, 61, opens doors for younger conservatives, some observers say.

By DONNA CASSATA The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Sen. Jim DeMint, patron saint of the tea party and a would-be Republican kingmaker, announced suddenly Thursday he would resign his South Carolina seat to head Washington's conservative Heritage Foundation think tank -- a shift that reverberated through a soul-searching GOP.

Jim DeMint
click image to enlarge

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., announced Thursday that he is resigning to take over at Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press

‘LEAVING SENATE, NOT THE FIGHT’

WASHINGTON - The surprise resignation of Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina on Thursday could prove to be a marker for a decline in the influence of the tea party movement he has helped lead.

His departure from Congress, effective next month, comes as the political winds appear to be blowing against the 61-year-old lawmaker and the movement he has spoken for. Some of the movement's most fiery members lost re-election bids last month, including Reps. Allen West of Florida, Joe Walsh of Illinois and Chip Cravaack of Minnesota. Earlier this month, the House GOP leadership unceremoniously removed three conservatives from key committee assignments.

And polls have shown declining support for the movement.

A wide survey in DeMint's very conservative home state, released this week, found that more South Carolinians now disapprove of the tea party movement than approve of it. Even among the state's Republican voters, fewer than 1 in 12 said they considered themselves tea partyers, according to the Winthrop University poll.

"This may be an indication that the movement is truly waning," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the independent Cook Political Report.

"This should also be frustrating" for DeMint.

DeMint, who sought to carve out an influential role as the leader of the Republican right in the Senate, will take over in April as president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

In a statement, he said he was "leaving the Senate now, but not leaving the fight." Later, he joked during an appearance before the foundation staff that his new job was "a big promotion," according to an account on the Heritage website.

DeMint positioned himself as an unyielding foe of Republican efforts to compromise with President Barack Obama over government spending, aggressively opposed efforts to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, and alienated at least some Republican colleagues by threatening to back primary challenges against those who deviated from conservative positions.

On Tuesday, he criticized a proposal by House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to raise $800 billion in additional tax revenue, made as part of negotiations designed to avert spending cuts and increased taxes that would otherwise take effect next month.

DeMint said Boehner's "tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more."

DeMint's influence was at its zenith last year during the Republican presidential primary contest, in which tea party sentiment helped push Mitt Romney and other contenders to the right.

Hoping to gain his endorsement, five presidential candidates, including Romney, flew to Columbia, S.C., to court the senator, answering his questions at a nationally televised Labor Day forum that he organized.

But Republican losses in the election weakened his position.

The party had hoped to win control of the Senate, but instead lost ground.

– Tribune Washington Bureau

Just two years into a second, six-year term, DeMint said he would step down on Jan. 1 to helm Heritage while continuing the conservative fight.

The 61-year-old lawmaker, known to hurry home to South Carolina nearly every weekend, had signaled that this term would be his last, but his abrupt announcement shocked even his closest Republican colleagues.

"When he told me this morning, I about fell off my couch," said South Carolina's other senator, Republican Lindsey Graham. "I didn't see this coming."

Prizing ideology over electability, DeMint sometimes infuriated fellow Republicans, picking sides in GOP primaries with decidedly mixed results. He had no patience for centrist Republicans, pushing the party to the right while bankrolling candidates with millions from his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.

In 2010, candidates he ardently supported cost the GOP eminently winnable seats. This year, DeMint had better success.

"One of the most rewarding things I've done in the Senate is work with the grassroots to help elect a new generation of leaders who have the courage to fight for the principles of freedom that make this country so great," DeMint said in his statement announcing his departure. "I'm confident these senators will continue the legacy of conservative leaders before them."

DeMint also has sometimes been a thorn in the GOP side on legislation, just this week criticizing House Speaker John Boehner's "fiscal cliff' counteroffer to President Barack Obama that would raise tax revenue $800 billion as crushing for American jobs.

DeMint's departure creates an opening for a new generation of hard-charging conservatives in the Senate -- Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and soon-to-be Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

The strong conservative element is pitted against the establishment as the Republican Party tries to figure out its next moves after this year's defeat in the presidential race and the loss of congressional seats.

Shocked Senate Republicans were too courteous to say good riddance to DeMint, but a few made it clear that there were still hard feelings over the senator's political moves.

"I won," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said tersely when asked about DeMint backing her Republican primary rival Joe Miller in 2010, forcing her to run as a write-in candidate.

Democrats pointed out that they increased their numbers in this year's elections and will hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate next year.

"His effect on the system may have been more beneficial to Democrats than to Republicans," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010 and this year, said he and DeMint agreed as conservatives "on 95 percent of the issues, it's a lot of it has to do with tactics to advance the conservative cause through the electoral process. I wish him well."

Delaware and Colorado in 2010 are sore points for Republicans who were certain they could win the Democratic-held seats.

DeMint backed Christine O'Donnell who prevailed over the more electable Rep. Mike Castle in the GOP primary; Democrat Chris Coons easily beat O'Donnell that November.

In Colorado, DeMint supported conservative Ken Buck who stumbled in his race against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.

Yet for the defeats, there are several Republicans who owe their seats to DeMint, and they expressed appreciation for a man they consider the chief instigator of the tea party movement.

"We have a much bigger liberty caucus in the Senate than we did before," Paul said. "I think a lot of that is thanks to Jim DeMint."

Said Florida's Marco Rubio: "I would not be in the U.S. Senate had it not been for Jim DeMint taking a shot on me."

 

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