Republican U.S. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a champion of fiscal conservatives in Congress who has clashed with his party’s leaders, said he will leave in the middle of his term to lead the Heritage Foundation.
At the Republican-leaning policy group in Washington, DeMint will be “much freer to roar” than if he stays in the Senate, Republican political consultant Craig Shirley said yesterday in a telephone interview. Democrats widened their majority in the chamber by two seats in last month’s election.
“He will have a higher platform, greater authority in that position and thus more influence over the direction of the party and the conservative movement,” Shirley said.
The job change would help bolster the personal finances of DeMint, 61. He reported a maximum net worth of $65,000 on his 2010 financial disclosure forms, the fourth-lowest of U.S. senators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Edwin J. Feulner, who will step down as Heritage Foundation president in April, was paid more than $1 million in 2010, according to the group’s tax documents.
DeMint, whose Senate Conservatives Fund backed several Senate candidates in the 2010 and 2012 Republican primaries against hopefuls supported by the party’s establishment, is “one of a handful of people responsible” for the influx of Tea Party-backed lawmakers in 2010, said Senator Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican.
“And that’s a pretty damn good legacy,” Graham said. “Say what you like about the Tea Party, but without the Tea Party none of us would be talking about fiscal issues like we are today.”
DeMint, who is finishing two years of his second six-year term, said in a statement that he was “not leaving the fight.” He said the “conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said DeMint, who will pass up a spot as the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, probably decided to leave the Senate in part because the Republicans didn’t gain a majority in the chamber in the Nov. 6 election.
“It would be the same thing for the next two years that he’s experienced before,” Bonjean said. “Clearly, he’s looking for new opportunities to express his conservative views.”
DeMint stepped aside earlier this year as head of the Republican Steering Committee, a senators’ group that develops small-government policy options. From that post, DeMint helped engineer strategies to thwart legislation put forth by the Senate’s Democratic majority.
DeMint has also been at odds with leaders of his own party. He fought for and eventually won a ban on congressionally directed spending known as earmarks that was opposed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
McConnell yesterday in a statement thanked DeMint “for his uncompromising service to South Carolina and to our country” in the Senate. McConnell said DeMint “helped provide a powerful voice for conservative ideals.”
In 2008, DeMint forced a weekend vote on legislation to expand President George W. Bush’s program to combat AIDS in Africa. He was criticized by members of both parties when he skipped the vote.
First elected to the Senate in 2004, DeMint was re-elected two years ago. Earlier, he served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Club for Growth, a small-government group based in Washington, has given his voting record a 100 percent rating.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, under state law will appoint a replacement until a special election is held in 2014 to fill the remainder of DeMint’s term.
“Our state’s loss is the Heritage Foundation’s gain,” she said in a statement.
Freshman Representatives Tim Scott and Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and former state attorney general Henry McMaster are potential contenders to replace DeMint.
Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said Haley must decide whether she wants to appoint a “caretaker” to hold the seat until 2014 or someone who is interested in serving longer.
South Carolina-based Republican political consultant Wesley Donehue said DeMint’s decision “has everything to do with the inability of anyone to get everything done.”
DeMint’s departure from Congress follows an election in which the Senate’s Democratic caucus increased its majority by two seats to 55-45.
Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who came to the chamber the same year as DeMint, said DeMint has been “an anchor for conservative principles” and his departure would leave “a big void.”
Coburn said he and DeMint learned together “how to use your rights in an appropriate way and have them respected.”
DeMint’s announcement coincides with efforts in the House to crack down on the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Earlier this week, four Republicans who opposed House Speaker John Boehner on spending and budget issues were removed from their committee assignments.
Three of them were elected in 2010 with support of the Tea Party movement, and their reassignments drew a protest from FreedomWorks, an umbrella group for the Tea Party movement.
DeMint “was the point person for the no-compromise conservative wing” of the Republican Party, said Stu Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Whether the Tea Party is losing its clout in Congress “is absolutely the right thing to ask,” Rothenberg said. “The question is whether Boehner has flexed his muscles and some conservatives now understand their place in the pecking order or whether we’re going to see an outright split in the party.”
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund helped elect three Republicans to the Senate on Nov. 6 -- Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Texas’s Ted Cruz. Other DeMint-backed candidates, including Republicans Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, lost to Democrats after divisive primaries.
DeMint endorsed Akin after the six-term congressman drew fire from Republican party leaders -- some of whom called on him to leave the race against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill -- for saying in an Aug. 19 television interview that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.
DeMint “changed the complexion of the Republican caucus,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of five Republicans DeMint’s fund helped elect in 2010. “There really is a libertarian conservative nucleus among some members in the Republican caucus now.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican backed by DeMint in 2010, said the South Carolinian’s efforts “created the opportunity for principled but underfunded candidates to have a chance.”
Rubio, viewed as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, added, “Think about four years ago compared to today and the folks who are part of this body now as a result of Jim DeMint’s efforts and how different the Republican conference looks as a result of his work.”