Senators were angry and frustrated one evening when Sen. Jim DeMint single-handedly forced a showdown on a popular bill to expand the global AIDS effort. They booed, then advanced the bill over his objections to its scope and costs.
Another politician might have been chastened by such a bipartisan rebuke. But DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, seemed fortified. The 2008 skirmish and others like it served only to validate his belief that the best way to advance his conservative agenda is to elect ideologically pure senators to replace his GOP colleagues.
DeMint is winning few friends in Washington with his no-holds-barred strategy. But outside the halls of Congress, in far-flung states across the country, his uncompromising stance and his support for hard-right Republicans in the November midterm election has made him a conservative hero.
He is seen by some as a GOP kingmaker, a future party leader. At home, many see South Carolina’s version of Sarah Palin, a mentor plucking conservative candidates from obscurity and giving them a fighting chance to become senators.
DeMint has brashly said he would rather have a minority of like-minded colleagues after the Nov. 2 election than a Senate Republican majority that fails to live up to the GOP’s conservative principles. He pledged $5 million from his political action committee to make it so.
By showering cash and clout on such once-unlikely candidates as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, DeMint may be nurturing new Senate allies in his often lonely fight for conservative values.
“I’ve said very publicly I don’t want to be here six more years with the same people I’m here with now,” DeMint said in a recent interview.
“The reason for that is not that I don’t love them all. It’s just that they are vested in the status quo,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of great candidates who are going to change the face of the Republican Party, and I think they are going to appear very reasonable to the American people.”
Yet the pursuit of his army of “Junior DeMints,” as they are becoming known, comes at price.
He has been criticized for backing candidates who may be too extreme to win, jeopardizing Republican chances for a Senate majority. And his ascent as a national conservative leader appears to be having an inverse effect on his power in Washington. Insiders consider it all but assured that DeMint will remain relegated to the fringe of his party after November.
Still, DeMint makes no adjustments to his crusade. In a political climate where an edgy electorate has little tolerance for Washington incumbency, his outsider style sells.
At a recent “tea party"-sponsored forum in his home state, DeMint did not even have to show up to receive a raucous welcome. Speaking via video, he delivered a trademark D.C.-doesn’t-get-it message. Some of his Republican colleagues, he added, “won’t be coming back to Washington next January.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
It is no surprise that DeMint is popular in his home state. South Carolina is home to Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress.
The state’s longer-serving senator, Lindsey Graham, has been censured by local GOP groups for not being conservative enough. Some expect South Carolina’s standing will rise with DeMint’s.
“Anytime a senator can cut a swath nationally, it’s kind of appreciated,” said J. David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and GOP strategist who helped run DeMint’s first congressional campaign. “Shows we wear shoes and don’t marry our cousins down here.”
DeMint supporter Hugh Buchanan, a retired tobacco industry salesman, said that trying to stifle DeMint’s national ambitions “would be like telling Sarah Palin to stay in Alaska.”
But success within the Senate requires a different skill set. Persuasion and compromise are valued arts. Being a leader means coaxing colleagues to your side.
One Republican senator’s eyes roll when DeMint is mentioned as a future leader.
“If people see that you sincerely are trying to make a difference in a piece of legislation, they will take you seriously,” said the senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If they realize it’s all about making some political point, they don’t.”
Fellow conservative Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, no stranger to hardball tactics, acknowledges a possible good-cop, bad-cop approach in his style and DeMint’s.
“There are different things that I would do differently,” Coburn said, “but he’s struck a chord with a lot of Americans.”
Sometimes, though, principle and pragmatism collide.
DeMint’s strict opposition to “earmarks” — spending directed by lawmakers at a particular area — has riled the South Carolina business community, which is seeking $400,000 in matching federal funds for a dredging study in Charleston, among the 10 busiest ports in the nation, to accommodate larger ships.
Still, DeMint is favored to win reelection in South Carolina against Alvin Greene, an unemployed man who won the Democratic nomination. A late write-in campaign by popular cookbook author Nathalie Dupree seems equally unlikely to derail his candidacy.
Voters barely blinked when DeMint recently told an audience about his long-held belief that gays and sexually active single women should not be teachers.
DeMint, a 59-year-old father of four, has a friendly Southern temperament that defies his rigid politics. He worked in marketing before serving three terms in the House, and was elected to the Senate in 2004.
He is among the Senate’s less wealthy members. His home in Washington is a rented room at a controversial religious house run by a group whose other associates, including South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford, have been entangled in personal scandals or extramarital affairs.
DeMint insists he has little interest in climbing his party’s leadership ladder.
“Do I look like a rabble-rouser?” he asks as he walks to his office from the Capitol.
“I’m not a kingmaker and we don’t need any more kings up here. What we need is just folks who are going to keep their oath of office for a limited government,” he said. “Change comes hard here. So I think anyone who pushes a little bit is seen as a troublemaker.”