(Corrects DeMint quote in fourth paragraph to say businesses spoke to him about gridlock.)
The phones wouldn't stop ringing at the Capitol Hill office of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint on Sept. 15, the day after Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell, one of his protégés, had unexpectedly defeated popular Delaware Congressman Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination. DeMint was besieged with requests for television appearances and interviews.
While Sarah Palin gets most of the attention for helping numerous unlikely candidates win Republican primaries, DeMint, 59, is an even bigger force. The first-term senator and former marketing executive has vaulted from backbencher to conservative kingmaker. He's a recruiter, fundraiser, and agenda-setter, racking up electoral victories for Tea Party underdogs in Senate races across the country.
In the process, he's rapidly building a power base in the Senate that will exert huge influence on the national agenda next year. He's also angering some of his Republican colleagues, including Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush's political strategist. They argue that O'Donnell and other "DeMint disciples," as former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott calls them, are so conservative and inexperienced that they aren't likely to win in the general election. If that happens, they say, he will deny the GOP the 10 seats it needs to take control of the Senate. "We've probably just written off Delaware, and we're shocked and disappointed about it," says Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican Hill aide.
DeMint doesn't care. "I've been told by businesses that if we would stop the tax increases the best thing that could happen for business after that is complete gridlock. At least gridlock is predictable," he tells Bloomberg Businessweek, taking a quick break between TV appearances. His goal, he says, is to stop programs that violate his anti-Big Government ideology. "What happens in the Senate is the Republicans sink to the lowest common denominator," he says. "People want an alternative to some kind of watered-down Republican philosophy."
DeMint formed a political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, in late 2008 with the goal of backing candidates that the national party was likely to ignore. The fund ranked Senate Republicans on how conservative they were. DeMint was the only one to score 100 percent; Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, came in at 79.
His group first took aim at Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who often voted with Democrats. DeMint endorsed Specter's primary opponent, Pat Toomey, a former congressman known as a tax-cutter and fiscal hawk. Specter left the Republican Party a few days later to run as a Democrat, and lost.
That victory emboldened DeMint to take on more of the Republican Establishment, starting with Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate seeking a U.S. Senate seat. DeMint raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the former state speaker, Marco Rubio. In April, as polls showed Rubio running away with the race, Crist left the party. "Republicans would not have the wind at our backs if we stood up for candidates like Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist," DeMint says.
Since then, DeMint's money and manpower have upset Senate Republican primaries in Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, and Delaware. Of the 13 candidates he's endorsed, only three have lost. Last year he raised $1.3 million. This year his PAC has pulled in more than $4 million, says spokesman Matt Hoskins.
Even if Republicans fail to win control of the Senate, DeMint's importance is rising. "In the Senate, if you got a half-dozen people who follow you, you have a major movement going," says Rutgers political science professor Ross K. Baker. "The big threat is to Mitch McConnell." DeMint says he doesn't want to challenge McConnell, or run for a leadership position. Still, says Baker, he is creating a "rival power center" that will move the party to the right. The candidates he supported will owe DeMint a "certain obligation of support," Baker says. Senators up for reelection in 2012 will not want to cross DeMint and the Tea Party by compromising with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, fearing that would invite a primary challenge.
DeMint's opposition is sure to set back one of Obama's priorities for the second half of his term: overhauling immigration laws. DeMint was a strident opponent of Bush's 2007 immigration plan, calling it "amnesty" for helping some illegal immigrants attain lawful status.
Tax policy is another area where DeMint could thwart the White House. In his book Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide into Socialism, published last July, DeMint advocates flat income-tax rates of 10 percent and 25 percent. He would kill the corporate income tax and substitute it with an 8.5 percent consumption tax. He also talks of reviving a failed Bush plan to partially privatize Social Security—which he considers "socialistic." The Federal Reserve is another area where DeMint and his troops are likely to take aim. He has repeatedly pushed for greater scrutiny of the central bank.
The first priority of the new conservative lawmakers, says DeMint, will be to stop new spending and repeal Obama's health-care legislation. "When we have a few who vote with the Obama agenda, it defines the whole Republican Party," DeMint says. "Win or lose, we are fighting for the right cause."
The bottom line: Senator Jim DeMint's money and message are helping Tea Party candidates win primaries as he builds a Senate power base.
With James Rowley, Patrick O'Connor, and Jonathan D. Salant