WASHINGTON — Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate for the Heritage Foundation will put an end to a key promise the confrontational conservative made his peers: Not to attack incumbent senators.
In fact, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2014 who have tangled with the South Carolina senator may do well to start looking over their shoulders. The South Carolina lawmaker is one of the most popular politicians in the Tea Party movement, which in many ways has mirrored his fiscally and socially minded brand of modern conservatism. Like the Tea Party, DeMint often relishes acting as thorn in the side of leadership, and he became famous for throwing often random seeming monkey wrenches into the legislative process over spending levels.
A vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, DeMint has consistently argued the party needs to become more conservative and ideologically pure if it is to have lasting electoral successes — a message, while popular with activists, runs counter to the conventional wisdom amongst establishment Republicans.
And with the party struggling to find its identity in the wake November’s defeat — including a disastrous run on the Senate — that fight, and DeMint’s place in it, will remain front and center.
DeMint has been silent on how public of a role he’ll play in electoral politics over the next two years, and its unclear whether his new position at Heritage, a not-for-profit organization that is barred from playing in politics, will limit his ability to openly push for candidates.
Nevertheless, DeMint’s departure means he could play a pivotal role in the 2014 mid-term elections — either as a conservative kingmaker or as a spoiler who backs ideological pure but fundamentally unelectable candidates, as he did in 2010 with Christine O’Donnell.
And unlike the last two cycles, when DeMint’s activities were constrained by his promise not to target colleagues in primary races, he will be free in the coming months to pick and groom primary opponents to incumbents in the Senate.
Of the members up for election in 2014, six stand out as potential targets for DeMint.
1. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
There’s no love lost between DeMint and the top Republican in the Senate. The two have repeatedly clashed over policy positions McConnell has sought to push, as well as the broader direction of the conference and Republican Party.
As a result, McConnell has kept a short leash on DeMint — and he hasn’t been afraid to snap it on occasion. For instance, several years ago DeMint mounted an unsuccessful effort reform a host of committee seniority and leadership rules. Although popular with conservatives, McConnell was adamantly opposed to them. When, during a closed door meeting of the conference it became clear that he would lose his bid, DeMint sought to withdraw his proposals.
But McConnell refused — and forced a series of painful, embarrassing votes defeating the reforms.
Given his already significant unpopularity with conservative activists like Eric Erikson at redstate.com, McConnell was already facing at best thinly concealed hostility from conservatives in his upcoming re-election bid. And while he’s likely not in real danger from a primary challenge — or a general election Democratic opponent — DeMint has never been one to give up on a lost cause.
2. Sen. Lindsey Graham
They talk a good game about how much they like and respect one another, but relations between DeMint and Graham have been strained since the former arrived in the Senate in 2004.
Although Graham is on the whole very conservative politically, he also has a pragmatic streak. He worked with then Sen. Hillary Clinton on legislation early on during the Bush administration, a decision that resulted in significant grief from conservatives and anti-Clinton forces.
He’s also demonstrated a willingness to address issues like climate change, which are anathema to conservatives, and he backed both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court picks on the grounds that the president should be allowed to pick his own people, even if they are liberal.
DeMint had indicated he would back Graham during his 2014 reelection against any primary foes, although it was unclear whether he would do anything to dissuade his ally Rep. Mick Mulvaney from running a primary challenge.
Graham is also one of the right’s top targets for the 2014 primary season and there’s sure to be significant amounts of money flowing into the state, and without a hamstrung DeMint in the Senate giving him cover, he could be overwhelmed by that even if his colleague doesn’t actively target him.
3. Sen. Saxby Chambliss
The second term Georgian’s decision to openly break ranks with Grover Norquist over his tax pledge enraged already disgruntled conservative activists in the state as well as nationally, who have long viewed the soft spoken, mild manner Chambliss with some suspicion.
Ironically, Chambliss is extremely conservative in his voting record, but his inability to talk like a conservative has become an increasing problem for him.
And for all his conservative street cred, Chambliss is still very much a company man when it comes to McConnell’s control of his party and is a reliable vote both on votes and within the conference — which are not the sorts of traits that can endear you to DeMint or the conservatives he’s connected to.
Chambliss also faces a crowded field of potential primary challenges, including Tea Party favorites Rep. Tom Price and Herman Cain. They may not necessarily be demonstrably more conservative than Chambliss. But both have repeated shown they’re willing to ignore the establishment’s wishes, exactly the sort of thing DeMint has looked for in candidates he’s backed in the past.
4. Sen. Susan Collins
Susan Collins is one of the last vestiges of the Senate Republican conference’s moderate wing. Like former Sen. Bob Bennett and outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar, she represents an older version of the party based on so-called “Northeast Republican” principles that skew towards fiscal conservatism and away from the openly hostile, aggressive approach of modern conservative activists.
Her penchant for compromise and bipartisanship, traits DeMint and his supporters have become increasingly down on, have put her at odds with him on repeated occasions, and his involvement in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s 2010 Senate race angered many moderates like Collins.
Collins could face significant Tea Party opposition. Her fellow “Lady of Maine” the retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, after all, opted to leave the Senate rather than run a bruising re-election race this year, and a primary challenge seems very likely.
5. Sen. Lamar Alexander
Like Collins, Alexander comes from the GOP’s moderate wing — what conservatives derisively refer to as “RINOs,” Republicans In Name Only.
He’s consistently worked across the aisle and whether it be votes on Obama’s judicial nominations or support for efforts to curb man-made causes of climate change, Alexander and Collins both find themselves on the wrong side of the ideological divide from DeMint on key policy issues.
Over the years, Alexander has bristled at DeMint’s ideological crusading over various issues and his increasing demands that the party hew to a much harder line. In fact, Alexander’s frustration with DeMint and his acolytes became so bad last year, he left the conference’s leadership ranks last year.
Although Alexander is enormously popular in Tennessee and has lined up support from virtually the entire state Republican leadership — which could shield him from a serious challenge — he is deeply unpopular in hard-line circles nationally. If a viable primary challenger were to arise it’s not inconceivable that DeMint could enter the race.
6. Sen. Pat Roberts
Roberts, an “Old Bull” legislator from Kansas is something of a wild card. He’s never been particularly fond of DeMint — whom he once referred to chidingly as “young man” during a particularly tense period between DeMint and leadership.
And Roberts’ position as an institutionalist rubs DeMint and outside conservatives the wrong way, as has the fact that he is very much a loyal soldier to McConnell. That, however, would likely not be enough to draw DeMint into the race. After all there are any number of members DeMint has sparred with over the years, and the ranks of defiant Republicans remain thin.
But DeMint could have his interest piqued if Rep. Tim Huelskamp decides to make a run for the seat.
It’s unclear whether Huelskamp’s ambitions run towards the Senate. Still Republicans said the possibility exists.
Huelskamp has close connections with Heritage, organizing weekly meetings with members and media outlets to discuss policy issues. And, he has found himself in the crosshairs of leadership in the House recently, being stripped of a key committee position — either for his conservative beliefs to hear him tell it, or because of insubordination, to hear leadership’s side of things.
DeMint has been following the so-called “purges” in the House GOP ranks with growing interest, and Huelskamp is increasingly becoming a cause celeb for national conservative leaders. That could make for a perfect storm in Kansas to bring DeMint and his allies into the race of one of the GOP’s most senior remaining Republican members.