The Long Arm (And Hidden Hand) of Jim DeMint

The GOP drive to kill Obamacare is the work of the Heritage president, the lawmakers he got elected, and aides he prepped to serve them.

South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint speaks at the Voters Values Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington on September 17, 2010.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 30, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

In the story of how Obama­care went from the un­dis­puted “law of the land,” as Speak­er John Boehner said last Novem­ber, to a law Re­pub­lic­ans say is worth shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment to stop, Jim De­Mint has been the un­sung prot­ag­on­ist.

Past and present aides to the former South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or, tea party law­makers he helped elect, and the Her­it­age Found­a­tion he now leads have their fin­ger­prints all over the polit­ic­al thrill­er that has left the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment hanging in the bal­ance. The De­Mint di­a­spora is driv­ing the drama, both be­hind the scenes and in front of the cam­er­as.

“He’s sort of the grand­daddy of this cur­rent fight,” said Matt Kibbe, the pres­id­ent and CEO of Freedom­Works, a key tea party ally.

When De­Mint ab­ruptly resigned his Sen­ate seat this Janu­ary four years be­fore the end of his term, some scoffed that he was cash­ing in, trad­ing the in­flu­ence of a sen­at­or for the paycheck of a lob­by­ist. His pre­de­cessor at Her­it­age had been paid $1 mil­lion a year and it is pre­sumed De­Mint is mak­ing at least that much. But that chat­ter has all but ceased.

“There’s no ques­tion in my mind that I have more in­flu­ence now on pub­lic policy than I did as an in­di­vidu­al sen­at­or,” De­Mint told NPR last week.

In large part, that’s a test­a­ment to the wide net­work of like­minded aides and law­makers he’s placed in po­s­i­tions of power across Wash­ing­ton. “De­Mint has left a leg­acy on the Hill that is full of ripple ef­fects ““ and they’re good ones,” said Chris Chocola, the pres­id­ent of the Club for Growth, which has spent mil­lions in GOP primar­ies to elect un­bend­ing con­ser­vat­ives. “He broke the mold and showed what could hap­pen and he in­spired oth­ers to fol­low.”

That in­cludes Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said this spring, “I would not be in the United States Sen­ate were it not for Sen­at­or Jim De­Mint.” So when Cruz set out to build his Cap­it­ol staff, he dipped heav­ily in­to the De­Mint alumni net­work, hir­ing five of De­Mint’s former aides. Among them is Aman­da Car­penter, his chief speech­writer, who helped pre­pare Cruz for his mara­thon anti-Obama­care speech. The oth­ers are Jeff Mur­ray, Al­ex­an­der Ara­man­da, Caitlin Thompson, and Sam­antha Leahy.

Cruz’s chief Sen­ate ally in the de­fund­ing fight has been Re­pub­lic­an Mike Lee of Utah, an­oth­er De­Mint protégé. De­Mint en­dorsed Lee in a video mes­sage that aired dur­ing the heated 2010 GOP con­ven­tion where Lee emerged as the in­sur­gent nom­in­ee. “Please send Mike Lee to the Sen­ate so he can join me in the fight for our fu­ture,” De­Mint told the del­eg­ates.

These days Lee’s le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or, Wendy Baig, is a De­Mint vet­er­an, as is his deputy chief of staff Mi­chael Con­nolly (who also did a tour at the Club for Growth).

Out­side the Cap­it­ol, some of the loudest cheer­ing for the de­fund­ing push has come from the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, a polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee that De­Mint foun­ded. The group has aired anti-Obama­care ads fea­tur­ing Cruz and Lee, gathered the sig­na­tures of 1.9 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans, and raised $1.5 mil­lion in Au­gust alone. Its ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, Matt Hoskins, cut his polit­ic­al teeth as De­Mint’s chief of staff.

They’ve been joined in the battle by Her­it­age Ac­tion, the found­a­tion’s sis­ter ad­vocacy arm, which spent $550,000 on web ads tar­get­ing 100 wob­bling Re­pub­lic­ans this sum­mer and has threatened to in­clude votes to keep the gov­ern­ment open and the health care law in place on its in­flu­en­tial score­card. One of De­Mint’s former aides, Tim Chap­man, is the chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of Her­it­age Ac­tion.

“I think De­Mint staffers have a unique bond,” Car­penter said. “We all real­ized we were a part of something spe­cial and that’s something we’re all try­ing to carry for­ward in our new roles.”

Though De­Mint’s former aides main­tain a close-knit net­work, sev­er­al sought to dis­pel the no­tion that their former boss is some kind of Wiz­ard of Oz fig­ure, or­ches­trat­ing things be­hind the scenes. In­stead, they are bon­ded by a shared ideo­logy. “We all know we’re not go­ing to go get K Street jobs after this. We’re not mak­ing friends with lob­by­ists. We’re try­ing to tear everything down,” Car­penter said.

“It’s neat,” she ad­ded. “It’s spe­cial.”

AG­GRESS­IVE TURN

De­Mint, 62, was elec­ted to the House in 1998 but didn’t be­come a na­tion­al brand un­til al­most a dec­ade later, after he joined the Sen­ate. The former mar­ket­ing ex­ec­ut­ive found a wel­come home among the grass­roots for his brand of strident, com­bat­ive ad­vocacy, even if it made for lonely fights in the Sen­ate at the time. Some have called him the god­fath­er of the tea party move­ment.

“The secret to what’s he’s been do­ing is he’s figured out there’s a huge pro­por­tion of the coun­try that is deeply con­cerned about where we’re go­ing,” Chap­man said. “He’s giv­en them a voice. At the end of the day, that’s what’s made Jim an ef­fect­ive voice in Amer­ic­an polit­ics.”

This Janu­ary, De­Mint took his in­ner circle with him to the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, which, along with Her­it­age Ac­tion, has taken a not­ably more ag­gress­ive pos­ture since his ar­rival. “It’s taken on new life since he got there and it very much re­flects his un­der­stand­ing that the last mile in polit­ics is all about en­ga­ging grass­roots,” said Kibbe, who has been with Freedom­Works for 15 years.

It was a Her­it­age-sponsored nine-city tour of town halls, star­ring De­Mint, that helped crys­tal­lize the GOP grass­roots ap­pet­ite for a shut­down fight dur­ing the Au­gust con­gres­sion­al re­cess. Cruz joined in for an event in Dal­las that Her­it­age es­tim­ated drew more than 1,000 at­tendees.

Cruz praised the “fear­less­ness” of De­Mint. “Su­per­man wears Chuck Nor­ris pa­ja­mas,” Cruz joked. “And let me tell you, Chuck Nor­ris wears Jim De­Mint pa­ja­mas.” The crowd erup­ted. It was the kind of rauc­ous scene hard to en­vi­sion un­der Her­it­age’s past pres­id­ent Ed Feul­ner, who served from 1977 to 2013. Dur­ing that time, Her­it­age be­came the move­ment’s in­tel­lec­tu­al cen­ter ““ a place for cof­fee, crois­sants, and con­fer­ence-room con­ser­vat­ism, not bois­ter­ous town halls.

The ag­gress­ive­ness of Her­it­age’s polit­ic­al arm this sum­mer over the farm bill so in­censed the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, the 170-strong group of House con­ser­vat­ives, that they ban­ished Her­it­age of­fi­cials from their weekly meet­ings, after dec­ades of co­oper­a­tion. Her­it­age Ac­tion’s con­stant with-us-or-against-us score keep­ing has frus­trated all but the most con­ser­vat­ive House mem­bers.

The act­iv­ist shift un­der De­Mint has rankled some old Her­it­age hands, as well. Mickey Ed­wards, one of Her­it­age’s found­ing trust­ees, told the At­lantic re­cently that Her­it­age now looks “like just an­oth­er hack tea party kind of group.”

There are po­ten­tial leg­al pit­falls for De­Mint, as well. As a former sen­at­or, he’s sub­ject to a two-year cool­ing off peri­od be­fore he’s al­lowed to lobby his former col­leagues ““ even if he’s loudly and pub­licly telling them what to do in the on­go­ing Obama­care fight. A Sen­ate eth­ics memo from 2012 re­minded of­fi­cials that “fed­er­al crim­in­al law pro­hib­its former sen­at­ors from know­ingly com­mu­nic­at­ing or ap­pear­ing be­fore any cur­rent mem­ber or em­ploy­ee of the Sen­ate or House”¦if they have the in­tent to in­flu­ence of­fi­cial ac­tions and they are act­ing on be­half of any oth­er per­son.” De­Mint and Cruz ap­peared on the same stage in Dal­las, for in­stance, though nev­er at the same time, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports.

KAMI­KAZE POLIT­ICS

Eth­ics rules aside, es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans are com­plain­ing that De­Mint, Cruz, Lee, Her­it­age Ac­tion, and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund have led the party in­to a kami­kaze mis­sion to de­mand that Pres­id­ent Obama un­wind his sig­na­ture do­mest­ic achieve­ment. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina has called it the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Oth­ers have com­plained that De­Mint, Her­it­age, SCF, and the Club are too con­cerned about pun­ish­ing way­ward Re­pub­lic­ans and not win­ning more seats from Demo­crats who con­trol the Sen­ate. They point to De­Mint’s his­tory of back­ing gen­er­al-elec­tion losers in GOP primar­ies, in­clud­ing Ken Buck in Col­or­ado and Christine O’Don­nell in Delaware, who both fumbled away win­ning seats in 2010.

But De­Mint, long a lonely ideo­lo­gic­al war­ri­or, has nev­er been one to listen to main­stream GOP or me­dia cri­tiques. The dif­fer­ence now is the House is steered by the right flank of the Re­pub­lic­an Party and the Sen­ate is pop­u­lated with at least a vo­cal group of un­bend­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in De­Mint’s im­age ““ many of whom he helped elect.

“Pick any is­sue, pick any fight, and who are the people that are char­ging out in­to battle and lead­ing the fight, they are the Rand Pauls, the Mike Lees, the Marco Ru­bios ““ the lead­ers who are there be­cause of Jim De­Mint’s sup­port,” Cruz said in a South Car­o­lina speech this spring hon­or­ing De­Mint.

De­Mint was of­ten among the earli­est, loudest, and most im­port­ant back­ers of those in­sur­gents, of­ten against es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ites. For in­stance, De­Mint reached out to Ru­bio to set up an en­dorse­ment meet­ing the same day the of­fi­cial Sen­ate GOP arm en­dorsed Ru­bio’s op­pon­ent, Flor­ida Gov. Charlie Crist. In his polit­ic­al mem­oir, Ru­bio wrote of how De­Mint’s call had provided a crit­ic­al boost “on a day when I felt the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an uni­verse had lined up in op­pos­i­tion to me.”

Ru­bio, Cruz, Lee, Paul, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, an­oth­er De­Mint-backed in­sur­gent, were all among those who voted to­geth­er on a key pro­ced­ur­al tally to try to block a meas­ure to keep the gov­ern­ment open, fear­ing it would al­low Obama­care to be fun­ded. So did Sen. Tim Scott of South Car­o­lina, who re­placed De­Mint in the Sen­ate and is an­oth­er protégé.

After the meas­ure passed, Cruz turned his at­ten­tion to the lower cham­ber, suc­cess­fully push­ing hard­line House con­ser­vat­ives to unite and send the Sen­ate a second Obama­care-gut­ting meas­ure, this time delay­ing the law for a year. Lee could be found stalk­ing the halls of the House late Sat­urday night as votes dragged past mid­night.

The meas­ure would have pre­ven­ted the health care law from go­ing in­to ef­fect Oct. 1. But that was not enough to win the full sup­port of Her­it­age Ac­tion, which re­mained of­fi­cially neut­ral, be­cause “it falls short of full de­fund­ing.”

“If I were speak­er, I’d tell the pres­id­ent, ‘Mr. Pres­id­ent, we fun­ded the gov­ern­ment, but we’re not go­ing to fund your bill,’”‰” De­Mint, who de­clined an in­ter­view for this story, told Bloomberg last week. “‘We are not go­ing to give in — one month, two months, three months. We are nev­er go­ing to give in. It’s just that im­port­ant.’ And if the pres­id­ent wants to put the coun­try through that to save a law that isn’t ready to go, well, then that’s a battle we have to have.”

Be­cause of his aco­lytes, it’s a battle that’s hap­pen­ing.

These days, Chocola of Club for Growth said that more and more Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates come in for en­dorse­ment in­ter­views say­ing the same thing: “I want to be like Jim De­Mint.”

“That,” Chocola tells them, “is a good mod­el to fol­low.”

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