US Politics

Jim DeMint ends US Senate career leaving a trail of conservatives

Jim DeMint, a kingmaker for conservative US Congress hopefuls and presidential candidates, is leaving the Senate after 14 years of service

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 4:32am

In typical blunt fashion, US Senator Jim DeMint recently warned of the dangers to America from the "lame duck", "zombie" Congress that's poised to resolve weighty issues such as the looming fiscal cliff before it adjourns at the end of the year.

The biggest threat is "the 'lame duck' members of Congress … who have either announced their retirement or been replaced by voters," DeMint wrote last month on his senatorial website blog. "These few dozen 'zombie' legislators, unlike their colleagues, are utterly free from public accountability."

With his impending departure from the Senate announced on Thursday, DeMint, Republican senator for South Carolina, officially joined the zombie class as his 14-year congressional career ends when the 112th Congress completes its business.

But the South Carolina conservative firebrand won't be aimlessly roaming the political countryside. From his new perch at the Heritage Foundation, he'll very likely continue the role he carved during his Senate and House of Representatives days as a cultivator and kingmaker of congressional and presidential candidates - and occasional irritant.

"South Carolina has a long tradition of colourful politicians who stand outside the mainstream," said Blease Graham, an emeritus University of South Carolina political science professor, harking back to the late Senator Strom Thurmond and bare-knuckle political guru Lee Atwater. "I think DeMint stands to take a place among that group."

Since DeMint's arrival on Capitol Hill - he was first elected to the House in 1998 and to the Senate in 2004 - he's been a drum major for fiscal restraint and conservative purity within the Republican Party in terms of policy and candidates.

His star rose around 2006, when he spearheaded the cause against targeted political spending known as earmarks, helped scuttle a drive for comprehensive immigration legislation desperately sought by then-president George W. Bush and later led the charge against President Barack Obama's health care law.

The soft-spoken DeMint, from Greenville, South Carolina, used skills he developed as the former owner of a marketing company, and deftly labelled his targets. Comprehensive immigration became "amnesty" and he warned - incorrectly - that the health care law battle would be Obama's "Waterloo".

One of the poorest members of Congress - with an estimated US$40,501 (HK$313,900) in wealth, according to a Washington Post analysis - DeMint used his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee to contribute heavily to tea party and other conservative candidates. The PAC amassed millions of dollars, and much of it went to political unknowns or novices, or to those whom the establishment had rebuffed.

Some of DeMint's political children paid homage to him.

"He created the opportunity for principled but underfunded candidates to have a chance," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, a potential presidential contender in 2016.

"That was certainly my case. So I think the Republican conference is better for Jim DeMint's service."

But not all Republicans agree. DeMint was often at loggerheads with the party's election apparatus. "The priority is not first the majority," DeMint said in 2010. "We had a big majority with 55 Republican senators. We had a big House majority. We had Bush in the White House. We spent too much, borrowed too much - and they [the voters] threw us out."

DeMint thumbed his nose at House Speaker John Boehner this week for his counterproposal to Obama to avert the fiscal cliff.

"Speaker Boehner's US$800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more, while not reducing our US$16 trillion debt by a single penny," he said. "This isn't rocket science."