WASHINGTON — For his first eight years in Washington, Jim DeMint was like most members of Congress – relatively quiet, fairly innocuous and pretty unknown outside his state.
Over his final six years in the Senate, DeMint rocked national politics like an earthquake, acquiring both fame and notoriety that few lawmakers obtain in such a short period.
Reveling in his nickname Senator Tea Party, the Greenville, S.C., Republican rode the populist uprising but also fueled it with his uncompromising, in-your-face opposition to nearly all manner of federal spending.
DeMint helped make “earmarks” a household word and spearheaded the drive to impose the current bipartisan moratorium on the steered congressional funding that had been at the center of lawmakers’ work for decades.
He helped to elevate the rapidly rising federal debt from a merely troublesome issue to a national crisis that brought the government to the verge of shutdown.
Perhaps most lastingly for his legacy, DeMint became the Senate’s biggest fundraiser and used his millions to bankroll ultraconservative Senate candidates.
Some of his acolytes, such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, gained election and are now rising Republican stars.
Other DeMint proteges, such as Christine O’Donnell of Delaware or Todd Akin of Missouri, went down in flames, embarrassing their party and losing winnable Senate seats to Democrats.
DeMint’s many admirers say he helped bring a new generation of leaders to Washington who are forcing their colleagues to get the country’s fiscal house in order.
His numerous detractors, among them some conservative commentators and prominent Republicans, say he cost his party a shot at regaining a Senate majority by backing unelectable renegades.
“Policy-wise, I don’t think there’s anything out there that has his name on it that he’s going to be known for, but he definitely made his presence felt politically,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with the widely read Cook Political Report. “I think history will treat his time in Washington as a mixed record.”
Employing his skills as a former marketing firm owner, DeMint was able to turn complex issues into catchy, short phrases that grabbed attention and galvanized his growing legion of supporters across the country.
His branding of a major Senate immigration reform bill as “amnesty” in 2007 helped rouse grassroots opposition that contributed to its defeat.
But two years later, his vow to make an even bigger health-care measure President Barack Obama’s “Waterloo” became a false promise when the Democratic-controlled Congress passed it and the Supreme Court eventually upheld the landmark law.
Despite their efforts to downplay their differences, DeMint and South Carolina’s senior senator, fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, made their state a staging ground for the widening divide within their party as they cast conflicting votes and took different stances on spending bills, immigration, climate change, Supreme Court nominees and a range of other key issues.
Emphasizing the need to follow clear conservative principles, DeMint rejected compromise and criticized the results that came from it.
He noted that it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, and a Republican-controlled Congress that increased spending, drove up the national debt and passed new big-government programs such as Medicare coverage of prescription drugs and the No Child Left Behind education mandates.
With slight variations at different times, DeMint defiantly declared: I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don’t.”
For Graham, a Seneca Republican who has worked with Democrats to try to solve big issues, that wasn’t a viable approach to governing.
When a DeMint admirer tried to shout Graham down and yelled, “You’re a hypocrite!” at the 2009 South Carolina Republican Convention, Graham retorted: “I’m a winner, pal. Winning matters to me. If it doesn’t matter to you, there’s the exit sign.”
In his tumultuous Senate career, DeMint was willing to lose multiple battles in his bid to win what he viewed as an all-out war over the direction of a nation that he repeatedly accused Obama and his congressional allies of leading toward socialism.
When DeMint tried unsuccessfully to block extension of unemployment benefits, editorial writers called him callous. But in his abiding belief that all Americans should play on a level playing field and Congress “shouldn’t pick winners and losers,” he was an equal-opportunity offender.
He opposed trade subsidies for big companies, federal compensation for military family members who drank tainted water at Camp Lejeune, special incentives to hire war veterans.
He enraged South Carolina business leaders by refusing to sign a letter to Obama that the state’s other lawmakers wrote, seeking funds to deepen the Charleston port, a crucial economic-development project for major companies that ship their products through the Atlantic outlet.
DeMint’s soft-spoken manner and slight physical stature made his rabblerousing style all the more formidable.
That style was on display Thursday when he delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor. Saying he had discarded his prepared remarks in order to speak from the heart, DeMint thanked his wife and four children, his staffers and the people of South Carolina. Then he thanked his “many friends” in the Senate.
That would be standard fare for most retiring senators. But it was incongruous coming from DeMint, a political loner who loved to tell his followers: “I didn’t come to Washington to make friends, and I haven’t been disappointed.”
It was incongruous coming from a senator who within days of the 2010 elections wrote a Wall Street Journal column in which he warned the new tea party-backed senators he’d helped gain office that many Republicans they would now serve with hadn’t wanted them to win.
Citing former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott’s recent admonition of the party’s “need to co-opt” the newcomers, DeMint warned: “The establishment is much more likely to buy off your votes than to buy into your limited-government philosophy.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have heaped public praise on DeMint since his surprise Dec. 13 announcement that he was resigning to run the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative advocacy group in Washington.
“They say success has many fathers, but it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more than Jim DeMint to raise the public’s awareness on spending and debt, and the threat that big government poses to our liberties,” McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Coming from McConnell, such praise too was incongruous.
While DeMint’s growing power as a conservative kingmaker made McConnell and other prominent Republicans wary of criticizing him publicly, their aides revealed their true feelings in multiple background conversations with reporters.
They resented DeMint for forcing them to take uncomfortable votes on issues they would have preferred to avoid – and were furious once when he forced senators to stay in town for a rare Saturday vote, and then didn’t show up to participate in it.
In Senate parlance, they viewed him “as a show horse, not a work horse.” They denigrated him as an ideologue, a self-righteous moralist who made cheap plays to the party’s base.
It was no accident that DeMint failed to land a seat he coveted on the Senate Finance Committee, a seat to which his seniority normally would have entitled him.
And it was no accident that when DeMint tried to strip Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of the Alaskan’s Senate seniority after she’d ran a write-in campaign to defeat Joe Miller, who with DeMint’s backing had beat her in the Senate primary race, other Republican senators overwhelmingly backed her and she never forgave DeMint.
But if DeMint’s tactics often left him shunned by many of his own party peers, his willingness to stand alone for the principles he held dear earned him thousands of unabashed admirers around the country.
“He is not afraid to tell the truth, and he is not afraid to take on issues, even if he’s the only one taking them on,” said Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach retiree and head of the South Carolina Tea Party. “This country is going broke, we need to take a stand, and he’s one of the few people up in the capital who really understands that.”
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican who gained office in the 2010 wave elections, said DeMint is a mentor for him.
Mulvaney rejects the criticism of DeMint for having cost Republicans control of the Senate, saying the candidates he supported gave the party a net gain.
“When he made an affirmative decision to step outside the system, that’s when he vaulted to national prominence,” Mulvaney said. “I don’t know how many other people have done that in my lifetime. The man has had an inordinate impact on the United States Senate. Jim has almost reshaped the Senate in less than a decade. That’s unheard of.”
In light of his stormy tenure, the DeMint who spoke on the Senate floor Thursday for the last time sounded deceptively demure.
“I’m very grateful to my colleagues who I’ve often scrapped with on a lot of issues,” he said. “I appreciate their patience on both sides.”
Speaking quietly, DeMint insisted that the ideas he’d fought for weren’t political or partisan at all, but merely common-sense notions that some states – he mentioned Texas, North Dakota, South Carolina and Pennsylvania – have shown can work, ideas like lower taxes, less regulation and fewer labor unions.
Saying “this is not rocket science,” DeMint insisted that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground to solve a host of problems.
But then, as he inevitably does, DeMint dropped the other shoe. As he spoke of his new career at the Heritage Foundation advancing “the power of ideas,” he made it clear that he leaves the Senate unbowed, unrepentant and unchanged.
“My hope is to make conservative ideas so pervasive, so persuasive, across the country that politicians of all parties have to embrace those ideas to be elected,” DeMint said.