Political power is a tricky thing. Though constantly talked about, it is near impossible to measure and rarely reveals itself publicly. To be sure, Sen. Jim DeMint has that power.
South Carolina’s junior senator has acquired the reputation as a “kingmaker,” having raised millions of dollars through the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee he founded prior to the 2010 mid-term elections. DeMint has also emerged as the de facto national leader of the Tea Party.
He was re-elected without serious opposition in 2010 and at this time last year, he was planning a . With the exception of Rick Perry, who had to back out at the last second, all of the major candidates attended the forum in hopes of securing a coveted DeMint endorsement—an endorsement that DeMint ultimately never extended to any of them.
DeMint is almost certainly the most popular politician in South Carolina since Strom Thurmond. DeMint is so popular, in fact, that no one seems to be upset by the fact that he hasn’t held a public session with constituents in nearly five months.
DeMint spoke at a , at the Silver Elephant Dinner in May, and at an event for Jeb Bush in April. Attendance at all of those events required a donation. DeMint also hosted a reception for service academy candidates recently and addressed graduates of South University in June. DeMint’s last open door session with voters appears to have been in early April in Rock Hill.
At this time of year, with Congress in recess, it is not unusual for office-holders to meet with constituents. DeMint’s counterpart in South Carolina, could have on military bases.
As far as neighboring states, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) has held six town halls this month and holds monthly telephone town halls. In North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr (R) had 18 public events in August alone, while Kay Hagan (D) has had “75 Conversations with Kay” since taking office in 2009 and nine this month.
If DeMint hasn’t been a presence in South Carolina he has been one in Texas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Arizona—all states where the Senate Conservatives Fund raised money for candidates and where DeMint made appearances on their behalf.
When asked about DeMint’s dearth of public appearances in the Palmetto State, State GOP Executive Director Matt Moore bristled at the suggestion that DeMint had lost interest in South Carolina. Moore said that splashy, media-friendly events were overblown by the media.
“Senator Jim DeMint is a work horse, not a show pony,” Moore said. “Over the past few months, he's held hundreds of individual and small group meetings with constituents in both South Carolina and D.C. Those meetings don't make front pages, but they certainly impact individual lives and families right here in South Carolina.”
A National Player in a New Way
Since the electoral success of 2010, DeMint has made it clear that his priority is remaking the Senate with politicians like himself.
As University of South Carolina professor of political science Mark Tompkins notes, DeMint is hardly the first senator to accrue influence outside his home state. Tompkins compared DeMint to his philosophical opposite, the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was a national figure for decades.
But DeMint may be in the process of redefining what it means to be a United States Senator in a way Kennedy never did.
“He’s not new,” Tompkins said. “What’s new are the issues he’s talking about and how he’s trying to deal with those issues.”
In previous generations, Senators and House members were their state’s biggest advocates, helping to deliver federal projects (which meant money and jobs) back home—pejoratively referred to as “pork.” Though a sore point with taxpayers, few voters ever complained when goodies came to their state or congressional district.
But DeMint has sworn off earmarks, citing them as one of the symptoms of the disease of living inside the D.C. Beltway, where meaningful legislation gets neutered by funding for projects that have little economic impact and exist primarily to spit shine a politician’s resume when it comes time for re-election.
Re-election, by the way, is not something DeMint says he’ll seek once his present term ends in 2016.
According to a DeMint staff member authorized to speak on background only, DeMint returns home as much as possible and is not a creature of Washington. He has little interest in having buildings or highways named after him.
This approach frees him up to be the kind of Senator that has rarely been seen in Washington.
According to Tompkins, DeMint and the people of South Carolina are an excellent example of a politician representing the values of his constituents, and vice versa.
“(DeMint) has been consistent throughout his tenure and set expectations for voters,” Tompkins said.
But the fact that DeMint is rarely seen in South Carolina is a problem for outgoing State Rep. Boyd Brown (D – Fairfield). “I wish we could keep him out permanently. He’s put his selfish personal ambitions ahead of the people who sent him to Washington,” Brown said.
"He represents the type of people who are only interested in getting theirs and once they do they say ‘Screw everybody else.’”
Though DeMint insists he won’t seek re-election or run for President, not everyone believes him.
Regardless, Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics thinks DeMint’s strategy makes sense. “He said he’s not running for re-election, so he can focus on his national goals,” Kondik said. “And if he does end up running for president he’s going to win South Carolina anyway, so he’s building a national network of support right now.”
But Kondik cautions DeMint into not taking the Palmetto State for granted. “There is an expectation that elected officials be available,” Kondik said. “He could be vulnerable to someone who says he’s not responsive to South Carolina.”
The idea of DeMint losing a re-election campaign seems improbable. Indeed, since 1930, no South Carolina senator who has served a full term has lost a re-election campaign.
Last month, DeMint separated from the Senate Conservative Fund and announced the creation of his own Super PAC called Senate Action. It means that DeMint can now raise unlimited amounts of money—the Senate Conservative Fund was forced to cap donations at $5,000. It’s a testament to DeMint’s power that he created a Super PAC on his own. Few, if any, senators have such influence.
That influence has come at a cost, though.
He has no doubt rankled his own party’s leadership by helping fund candidates to defeat fellow Republicans that DeMint did not deem to conservative enough. Among the victims are Richard Luger of Indiana, Bob Bennett of Utah, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charlie Crist of Florida (Specter and Crist eventually left the Republican Party).
Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns said that DeMint’s involvement in the Senate race in the Cornhusker State in May resulted in a weaker Republican winning the primary.
While campaigning in Texas for Ted Cruz, DeMint .
Some GOP commentators think DeMint has done more harm than good to the Republican cause.
It’s telling that among the dozens of speakers at this week’s Republican National Convention, DeMint is not among them.
And in South Carolina a few Republicans have suggested—though not on the record—that they’d like to see DeMint use some of his substantial influence to help candidates closer to home.
In the next year, that influence could be tested. Graham is up for re-election in 2014 and is almost certain to be challenged in the primary from his right, possibly by Tom Davis (R – Beaufort), who has become a darling of the Tea Party.
Graham has compiled a campaign war chest of $7 million and if Davis is to put up a serious fight, he’ll need to approach that total. Would DeMint use his Super PAC to help Davis get there?